By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009
GENEVA, Sept. 30 -- The United States hopes to launch a process here Thursday that could rein in Tehran's nuclear ambitions and possibly reorient Iran's role in the world, though U.S. officials are skeptical that Tehran will act decisively when its diplomats sit down for long-awaited discussions with world powers.
U.S. officials signaled Wednesday that they will seek a rare bilateral meeting with Iranian diplomats during the discussions. The talks between Iran and major powers, expected to last through the day, have been structured to allow for both group meetings and informal, bilateral sessions with Iran; a senior administration official said the latter would be "an opportunity to reinforce the main concerns we will be emphasizing in the meeting." He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity ahead of the talks.
President Obama has sought to make engagement with the Islamic republic and other antagonistic nations a central part of his foreign policy, but until now Iran has spurned his efforts. Nevertheless, the talks could be the most substantial and in-depth conversation between the United States and Iran since relations were severed after the Iranian revolution 30 years ago. The chief U.S. negotiator, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns, is a career diplomat who joined in similar major-power talks in July of last year, in the final months of the Bush administration, but was barely permitted to speak under rules set by the White House.
The senior administration official said Wednesday that "we are committed to meaningful negotiations to resolve what are growing international concerns about Iran's nuclear problem." But, he added, "this cannot be an open-ended process, more talks for the sake of talks," especially after the revelation last week that Iran has a second uranium-enrichment plant under construction. "We need to see practical steps and measurable results, and we need to see them starting quickly."
Until Wednesday, U.S. officials had said they had not decided whether a bilateral meeting with Iran was desirable. Wednesday's comments marked a distinct shift in tone, with the official emphasizing how the schedule provides the "opportunity" and "possibility" of such a meeting.
In what officials said was an unrelated development, the State Department announced that Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and his wife had been granted last-minute U.S. visas Wednesday morning. Mottaki, who came from the U.N. General Assembly to Washington to visit the Iranian Interests Section, held no meetings with U.S. officials during his brief stay. He is believed to be the first senior Iranian official to visit Washington since relations with the two countries were cut off.
"It's a coincidence," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said of the timing of the visit. "But if it leads in a constructive direction, we welcome it."
The chief Iranian negotiator being dispatched to Geneva, Saeed Jalili, is expected to press for acceptance of an Iranian proposal that would move beyond the nuclear issue and launch talks on a broad range of areas, including Afghanistan and reform of the United Nations. Whereas U.S. officials want to narrow the discussion to nuclear weapons, the Iranians want to broaden the topics on the table in order to test areas of cooperation with the United States. In Tehran on Wednesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a cabinet session that "this meeting is a test to measure the extent of sincerity and commitment of some countries to law and justice," according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
U.S. officials believe that the revelation of the enrichment facility, hidden in an underground bunker near the holy city of Qom, has given them leverage heading into the talks. In a blow for Tehran, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Wednesday said Iran violated rules on timely disclosure. "Iran was supposed to inform us on the day it was decided to construct the facility. They have not done that," Mohamed ElBaradei said in an interview with CNN-India.
U.S. officials said they will demand that the IAEA be given unfettered access to the facility, as well as people and documents, within weeks. Ahmadinejad last week floated the idea of the United States supplying enriched uranium for medical research as a confidence-building proposal; U.S. officials said Wednesday that the proposal is being examined by the IAEA but that there is no chance the United States will provide such material to Iran.
The other countries at the talks are Britain, France, Russia, Germany and China, many of which are sending their top professional diplomats. As a sign of U.S. seriousness -- and the intense media interest -- a substantial team of White House and State Department officials, including three spokesmen, is accompanying Burns. The press attention also led the Swiss government to move the talks to the isolated Villa Le Saugy, an 18th-century villa in the Geneva countryside.
Another key player is Javier Solana, the European foreign policy chief and the head interlocutor with the Iranians on behalf of the major powers. Solana, a nuclear specialist, earned a doctorate in physics from the University of Virginia in 1971 and has been intimately involved in the effort to open up Iran's nuclear program. Over the summer, however, he announced he would retire in October, and it is unclear who will fill his critical role.
Thursday's meeting is the culmination of a stop-and-go process that began in 2003 under the auspices of Britain, France and Germany, which feared that the United States and Iran were headed to an armed clash over the nuclear program. Tehran suspended its program for two years, but the deal with the Europeans fell apart and Iran restarted enrichment activities after Ahmadinejad became president.
In 2005, the United States, Russia and China joined the European countries in trying to press Iran with a combination of sticks and carrots. But Iran repeatedly said the carrots -- economic and political incentives -- were not good enough, and it shrugged off the sticks, which came in the form of three U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that it halt enrichment activities.
The initial package of incentives offered by the six countries in 2006 included only a vague reference to Iran's security concerns because the Bush administration insisted that that section of the offer be largely gutted. By contrast, a revised package put forth in 2008 -- and reaffirmed by the Obama administration this year -- pledges to negotiate extensive security commitments, including supporting Iran in "playing an important and constructive role in international affairs."
The Obama administration, like the Bush administration, has also supported Solana's concept of a "freeze for a freeze," a six-week 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 start as soon as Iran suspended enrichment. Bush drew a line at formal U.S. participation until Iran suspended enrichment, but Obama dropped that requirement.
In any case, the Iranians repeatedly insist that they will never suspend their enrichment activities. U.S. officials said Wednesday that they are open to other ideas for jump-starting serious negotiations, but suspension remains a goal.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.