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U.S, Europe crafting new approach to Iran

WASHINGTON—President Bush is trying for the first time to craft a joint strategy with Europe to stop Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, one that would force Iran to show unequivocally whether it's willing to trade away its nuclear ambitions, U.S. and European diplomats said Thursday.

As part of the strategy, the United States is insisting that there be a deadline—perhaps by June—on European negotiations with Iran over permanently halting its enrichment of uranium and other activities that could lead to the production of nuclear weapons.

Iran's leadership denies seeking nuclear weapons, but has repeatedly said it won't give up its right to use uranium for civilian nuclear power. Iran has the world's largest natural gas reserves and sixth-largest crude oil reserves, according to the Oil and Gas Journal.

Washington also wants the three European countries involved—Britain, France and Germany—to agree to turn the Iran issue over to the U.N. Security Council if their talks with Tehran fail, diplomats on both sides said.

Achieving a joint strategy would be significant because the United States and Europe have differed for years over how to handle Iran—a circumstance, Bush administration officials say, that has crippled efforts to keep the focus on Tehran's actions.

"The guilty party is Iran," Bush said Thursday during a visit to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. "And so we are working with our friends to make sure ... that the negotiating strategy achieves the objective of pointing out where guilt needs to be, as well as achieving the objective of no nuclear weapon."

Bush met Thursday afternoon with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss the Iran strategy. Rice conferred with European counterparts in London earlier this week.

It could take a couple of weeks to work out an agreement with the Europeans on how to proceed, a senior State Department official said.

The official and other diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities and because Bush hasn't come to a final decision.

As has been previously reported, Bush is considering whether to back incentives for Iran to give up its nuclear work. That would be a significant shift in the previous U.S. strategy of refusing to reward Iran for living up to past promises not to obtain nuclear arms.

The incentives that Europe wants to offer the Tehran government include not blocking Iran's application to the World Trade Organization and allowing the sale of spare parts for civilian aircraft.

Bush appeared to confirm the potential new approach, saying, "We're looking at ways to help move the process forward."

But U.S. and European officials said the American concessions are part of a larger deal in which Britain, France and Germany, known as the "EU three," would take a tougher line in talks with Tehran.

"They're firming up their stance on sticks. We're firming up our stance on carrots," the senior State Department official said.

The official said Bush and Rice, on their recent trips to Europe, found a hardening position that Iran must not be allowed to have nuclear arms and that its current suspension of uranium enrichment must be turned into a permanent cessation.

Two European diplomats said their countries are willing to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council, where it could face sanctions, if the negotiations fail.

A watershed could come by June. That's when the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran's compliance with a treaty allowing it to pursue only civilian nuclear power, holds its next board of governors meeting.

Yet it remains far from clear whether the new approach will work.

Iran has proved deft at deflecting international action by making last-minute concessions, and the Europeans have balked before at elevating the issue to the United Nations.

And Tehran continues its nuclear research.

In a toughly worded statement at the IAEA on Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Jackie Wolcott Sanders said Iran has constructed deep tunnels to store nuclear material near the city of Isfahan and hasn't told inspectors about it, continues work on a heavy water research reactor and has continued preparations for uranium enrichment.

Rice said Thursday: "Thus far the Iranians have shown no indication that they are interested in taking that deal."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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