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U.S. to back Europe on incentives to Iran

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration has decided to back a European offer of economic incentives to persuade Iran to end a program that could be used to produce fuel for nuclear weapons, U.S. and European officials said Thursday.

The administration's decision to back the EU Three's offer of economic incentives is a major policy reversal and a potential thaw in icy transatlantic relations over a range of issues, including the American-led invasion of Iraq, environmental policy and international law.

The administration planned to unveil its decision Friday, said the officials, who requested anonymity so as not to pre-empt the official announcement.

The Bush administration was expected to announce that it wouldn't oppose EU offers to support Iran's entry to the World Trade Organization and to provide spare parts for Iran's European-made Airbus passenger jets.

Another incentive that has been discussed is a U.S. offer of a "strategic dialogue" on disputes with Iran, something Tehran has long sought, said a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In return for the American move, the European Union was expected next week to affirm publicly a coordinated stand with the United States on Iran's nuclear program. That position would include a demand that Iran terminate its uranium purification, or enrichment, program.

The Bush administration has been pressing the EU to join it in referring Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions if the Islamic republic refuses to abandon the program.

A coordinated U.S.-EU approach would increase the pressure on Iran to negotiate with British, French and German officials. A fourth round of talks between Iran and the so-called EU Three was under way this week in Geneva.

Iran has refused to abandon its uranium enrichment program, saying it has the right to produce low-enriched uranium fuel for civilian electric-power reactors under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, a U.N. nuclear-watchdog organization.

The Bush administration charges that Iran is using its civilian nuclear program to conceal a clandestine effort to make highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. Iran denies the allegation.

Suspicions about Iran's intentions intensified with revelations beginning in 2003 that Tehran for years had secretly procured technology and information that could be used to develop nuclear weapons from Pakistani experts.

As a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of an international system designed to prohibit the spread of nuclear weapons, Iran was required to inform the IAEA of its procurements, but didn't. An IAEA investigation continues.

The Bush administration had opposed any rewards for Iran and was pushing the IAEA to refer the Islamic Republic's alleged nuclear transgressions to the Security Council.

The EU Three, however, had sought to strike a diplomatic deal with Tehran, and had argued that the lack of American backing for economic carrots to Iran undercut their negotiating position.

Bush signaled during his fence-mending visit to Europe earlier this month that he would reconsider the U.S. position, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday that a decision on supporting the EU Three was close.

"I think we're really coming to a common view of how to proceed," she said en route to a daylong visit to Mexico. "We are examining what means we might be able to use to contribute to the European Union Three's efforts at success; in other words, to support their diplomacy. ...

"But I want to be very clear that this is really not an issue of what people should be giving to Iran. This is an issue of Iran, of keeping the spotlight on Iran, which ought to be living up to its international obligations."

The offer of a strategic dialogue "might be a little bit early," a European diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. policy shift comes after extended negotiations with the Europeans and within the administration itself.

Some officials in the Pentagon and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney are said to have opposed any rewards for Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program, while State Department officials were seen as more supportive of the EU Three's approach.

The Bush team struggled and failed to come up with a coherent Iran policy during its first term.

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

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