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Iran and U.S. Signaling Chance of Deal

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008

President Bush's decision to shift policy and send a senior U.S. envoy to nuclear talks with Iran this weekend was made after increasing signs that Iran was open to possible negotiations and that international sanctions were having an impact on the Islamic republic, U.S. officials said yesterday.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pushed for the move in a meeting on Monday of Bush's top aides, and Bush's support suggests he increasingly is determined to put aside a possible military strike in an effort to reach a deal to end Iran's nuclear program in his final six months in office. In recent weeks, the White House already has approved a sweetened package of incentives to Iran that included a pledge to refrain from the use of force, supported a European gambit to begin preliminary talks with Iran and sent clear signals to Israel not to consider acting against Iran on its own.

For more than two years, the Bush administration has had the same bottom line: Iran must suspend its enrichment of uranium -- a route to a nuclear weapon -- before serious talks can begin. U.S. officials insisted yesterday that such a demand, also shared by European allies, had not changed, but the diplomatic lines have become sufficiently hazy that if negotiations start in earnest, Iran will also be able to claim a diplomatic victory.

Iran last week sent its own mixed signals, test-firing long-range missiles in the Persian Gulf while appearing conciliatory on possible negotiations.

With negotiations now a real possibility, the Bush administration, which had largely subcontracted the nuclear diplomacy with Iran to its European partners, also appears intent on making sure that Iran hears its voice directly, rather than having it filtered by other interlocutors. The international coalition seeking talks with Iran -- Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the United States -- is an unwieldy group with different interests and expectations in negotiations, and so U.S. officials wanted to ensure that the preliminary talks did not veer off course and lose sight of the suspension demand.

The chief negotiator is E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana. When he delivered the revised package of incentives to Iran last month, he was accompanied by senior foreign policy officials of the other five countries, but not the United States. Now, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns, the State Department's third-ranking official, will join the group meeting with Saeed Jalili, Iran's nuclear negotiator, in Geneva.

"The substance remains the same, but this is a new tactic," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. She added: "What this does show is how serious we are when we say that we want to try to solve this diplomatically."

Bush accepted Rice's recommendation at the closely held meeting, which also included Vice President Cheney, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, White House chief of staff Joshua B. Bolten and Burns. The move infuriated the administration's conservative critics, who said it was yet another sign the White House has lost its moorings.

"This is a complete capitulation on the whole idea of suspending enrichment," said former U.N. ambassador John R. Bolton. "Just when the administration has no more U-turns to pull, it does another."

But former State Department counselor Philip D. Zelikow said the decision is a natural evolution. "For some time, we and our allies have been reflecting on ways to reinforce that basic approach while taking away some of the more superficial complaints about it. This move does that. But the substantive position remains unchanged," he said.

U.S. officials said they felt comfortable making this shift because there are increasing signs that sanctions are beginning to harm Tehran, such as the decision last week by France energy giant Total SA to abandon plans to develop a liquefied natural gas project in Iran.

At the same time, however, the administration has sufficiently moderated its own position on how to proceed with talks.

In 2006, the initial package of incentives offered by the six countries included only a vague reference to Iran's security concerns because the Bush administration insisted that section of the offer be largely gutted. The new package, by contrast, offers to negotiate extensive security commitments, including supporting Iran in "playing an important and constructive role in international affairs."

The administration has also supported Solana's concept of a "freeze for a freeze," a six-week interim period for preliminary talks that blurs the lines between suspension and discussion. Under Solana's plan, talks could begin as long as the allies halt efforts to increase sanctions and Iran does not expand its nuclear program. Then formal negotiations would begin as soon as Iran suspended enrichment.

Thus, Iran could say it only suspended its program in the midst of talks, while the United States could say talks did not begin until nuclear activities were suspended -- allowing both sides to save face.

Iran insists that its nuclear program is aimed at generating electricity, not weapons, and thus far its official response has disappointed U.S. and European officials.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, in a three-page letter responding to the June offer made public this week by a French magazine, did not directly address the demand to suspend enrichment.

Instead, he called for a comprehensive dialogue, saying, "The time for negotiating from the condescending position of inequality has come to an end."

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