After weeks of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, the United States will meet here today with the world's wealthiest countries to determine a strategy for giving Iran one last chance to abandon its alleged nuclear arms program or face new international pressures.
Both Democrats and Republicans increasingly believe that Iran will be the next big foreign policy flash point -- and that action may prove necessary soon after the U.S. presidential election next month, no matter who wins.
A new proposal drafted by European members of the powerful Group of Eight nations is intended to get Iran to fully agree to a plan that will prevent it from being able to convert a nuclear energy program into an arms program. The proposal includes incentives if Iran complies and punitive measures if it balks, U.S. and European officials said. If Iran accepts such a plan, it could resolve an international standoff that has persisted since Russia resumed construction of Iran's first atomic power plant, at Bushehr, in the early 1990s.
The G-8 talks, hosted by the State Department, come a day after Russia and Iran announced that they have completed the Bushehr facility. Washington has charged it could be converted to the production of nuclear weapons.
Despite its heavy focus on Iraq and the domestic election, the Bush administration has agreed to look at one last overture to Iran, to be made as early as next week, because of mounting alarm over the Islamic republic's advancing capabilities and failure to follow through on an agreement to halt activities that could contribute to a weapons program.
"Iran is definitely the next big issue. It's the number one issue that any administration, be it Kerry or Bush, will have to face immediately because of the intelligence assessment that predicts Iran could have the know-how and capability as early as the summer of 2005," said a senior State Department official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy.
"That's a disputed intelligence claim," the official said. "But any capability in the hands of a rogue nation with a long record of supporting terror and a clear interest in challenging the U.S. and Israel makes that the clearest threat facing U.S. interests in the next administration."
Most intelligence assessments project later dates -- three to seven years -- before Iran could develop a nuclear weapon, and U.S. officials say Iran does not now have uranium or fissile material. But Tehran's failure to abide by an agreement with Britain, France and Germany last year not to work toward enriching uranium has triggered broad skepticism among Republicans and Democrats about Iran's long-range intent.
The United States is "open to all ideas" to prevent Iran from developing nuclear arms, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said Wednesday in Tokyo. But he warned that Washington is prepared to press for punishment if Tehran does not act.
"We hold the view that Iran needs to be brought to account, and we would like to move to the U.N. Security Council after the November board of governors meeting [of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency], but we're open to all ideas that people have," Armitage told reporters. He said he was returning to the United States to participate in the talks, which are scheduled to be chaired by John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
The new initiative emerged from talks on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly last month between G-8 foreign ministers and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. The G-8 ministers outlined a two-step proposal with a deadline pegged to the next meeting of the IAEA, in Vienna on Nov. 25, U.S. and European officials said.
Given that Britain, France and Germany did not win Iran's compliance, European members of the G-8 -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Russia and Canada -- are seeking a broader front. That would take away Iran's ability to play one country off another and undermine Tehran's contention that the three nations were operating under U.S. pressure, U.S. officials said.
The G-8 umbrella also would give the Bush administration cover for a new international overture and deniability that it is offering incentives to Iran, U.S. and European officials said.
The other G-8 countries will approach Iran individually, but with a single message that it immediately and permanently end uranium-enrichment and processing-related activities or face punitive international action, the officials said.
"We want to make clear to Iran that it has to comply immediately, and everyone agrees we should go to the Security Council [if it does not]. If they do, we might start talking about what we might be able to offer -- in comprehensive ways, not just economic," said a European envoy who has seen the proposal.
The plan has some support within the State Department, but the Bush administration is not eager to put its name on an offer that could help Iran avoid censure by the Security Council. While it has continually suggested that the council needs to discuss Iran's nuclear intentions, the administration has held back on stating that sanctions or other punitive measures should be placed on Tehran.
The administration yesterday played down its role. "We'll be in a listening mode," said a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the impending talks. "We're going to want to talk about what next steps will be taken."
There is cautious optimism among G-8 countries about the new initiative and the growing unity on Iran policy among the world's major powers.
"Do we expect any change in U.S. policy? Probably not for the moment. But would the U.S. oppose European initiatives with Iran? Probably not either," said a second European diplomat familiar with the plan.
The first European envoy called the talks an "incredibly positive" development that reflects the administration's willingness to look beyond the potential political fallout from a deal that might appear to offer Iran any benefits on the eve of the U.S. election.
Europeans also note the growing cooperation between the United States and Russia, which have long been at odds over the Bushehr facility. To ease U.S. fears, Russia is pressing for an arrangement in which Iran would return spent nuclear fuel to Russia -- another agreement not yet signed by Iran.