In shift, Obama administration will join Iran nuclear talks

McClatchy NewspapersApril 8, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration significantly stepped up its diplomatic engagement with Iran on Wednesday, saying it would break with former president George W. Bush's policy and permanently join international talks with Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The talks also include Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, and the switch in U.S. policy was announced in a statement by the six nations after consultations in London.

At the same time, U.S. officials said, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's special adviser on Iran, Dennis Ross, is traveling this month to the Persian Gulf to confer with America's Sunni Muslim allies there about a new approach to the conservative Shiite regime in Tehran.

The Obama administration is thought to be weighing an offer of direct, one-on-one negotiations with Iran that would go beyond the nuclear issue. The two countries haven't had diplomatic relations since shortly after the Islamic Republic's November 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

The latest moves signal that a White House-ordered review of Iran policy is nearing completion, diplomats said, and that President Barack Obama intends to make good on his campaign pledge of direct, unconditional diplomacy with one of the most enduring U.S. adversaries.

It remains far from clear how the divided Iranian government might respond to the overtures. Some analysts and diplomats question whether Iran will ever agree to give up its nuclear efforts, which it says is for civilian energy purposes. Israel and its hawkish new government are particularly skeptical.

Iran's responses to Obama's overtures have ranged from cautious to hostile. On Wednesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, "The Iranian nation welcomes a hand extended to it, should it really and truly be based on honesty, justice and respect," according to reports from Tehran.

Iran also announced Wednesday that it's charged detained U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi with espionage. Saberi, 31, has dual American-Iranian citizenship, and she's been detained since Jan. 31.

Bush declined to enter nuclear negotiations with Iran until it halted enrichment of uranium that can be used to make nuclear weapons. He authorized a single exception, sending senior U.S. diplomat William Burns in July to join a session with Iran in Geneva, Switzerland.

The other five members of the negotiating group welcomed "the new direction of U.S. policy" and the Obama administration's decision to "join in any future meetings with representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran," they said in a statement.

In Washington, Clinton told reporters that "careful engagement" with Iran "makes sense . . . there's nothing more important than trying to convince Iran to cease its efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon."

Obama hasn't spelled out how he'll handle the Iranian nuclear issue. For example, he hasn't said whether he'll support a compromise, floated by some European leaders, that would freeze Iran's uranium enrichment at current levels in return for a Western pledge not to seek additional economic sanctions on Iran.

The trip by Ross, which hasn't been publicly announced, is another part of Obama's outreach.

It will take him to Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf emirates, which are alarmed by Iran's rising power in the region. The Arab countries, dominated by Sunni Islam, have a long history of friction with Shiite Iran and worry about Tehran's influence on their Shiite populations.

A State Department official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak on the record, said that Ross would confer on the evolving U.S. approach to Iran.

That approach could include an offer by Obama of direct talks with Iran on a host of issues, including the U.S. military presence in Iraq; Iran's support for terrorism; and stabilizing Afghanistan on Iran's eastern border.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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