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U.S. foreign policy positions may bend on Iran and Palestinian aid

WASHINGTON—Working to hold together an increasingly tenuous international alliance, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice executed tactical retreats this week on two major issues, Iran's nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to U.S. and European officials.

On Iran, Rice agreed to go beyond threatened punishments and consider a revised potpourri of incentives that Europe favors to get Tehran to halt its enrichment of uranium, a process that can produce fuel for nuclear weapons.

She also agreed to parts of British and French proposals to create a fund to channel international aid to the Palestinians. The aid would help alleviate a social crisis made worse by an international cut-off of aid to the Palestinian Authority because it's led by Hamas. The United States and the European Union view Hamas as a terrorist group.

The partial U.S. agreement on aid represents a potential softening of the U.S. stand that nothing be done to aid the Hamas-led government, even indirectly. Rice agreed to consider a temporary fund that would channel help directly to the Palestinians, bypassing Hamas. But virtually every detail of the idea remains to be decided.

Diplomats, many of whom requested anonymity to discuss behind-the-scenes negotiations, said it remains to be seen whether the U.S. policy shifts, made during two days of high-level talks in New York, are more than rhetoric. Details of both initiatives are vague and remain to be hammered out in the coming weeks.

But the U.S. course corrections underscore the tensions between the United States and the European Union, Russia and China over how to proceed on key issues.

Tensions were so high during the New York talks that Rice abruptly ended a discussion with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a dinner Monday, one official said. The official said that Lavrov repeatedly complained about a speech critical of Russian policies that Vice President Dick Cheney gave last week in Lithuania and threatened to veto a resolution on Iran drafted last week by Britain and France and backed by the United States. A frustrated Rice cut him off with a curt "This meeting isn't going anywhere," the official said.

The acrimonious exchange prompted European diplomats to propose the incentives toward Iran that the U.S. agreed to support Wednesday, the official said.

The course corrections also underscore tensions between Rice and other members of Bush's foreign policy team, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, over how to deal with potential threats to U.S. security. Cheney, officials said, has opposed U.S. overtures to Iran and North Korea and has advocated spurning Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah faction lost to Hamas in parliamentary elections this year.

Rice, the officials said, has been forced to expend significant political capital and time to pursue a diplomatic solution to the confrontation with Iran.

Rice told reporters Wednesday that the U.N. Security Council will delay any action against Iran for two weeks while diplomats prepare an offer that promises Iran rewards if it ceases its uranium enrichment program and punishments if it doesn't.

"We felt that two weeks to continue to try to work for council unity was well worth it," she said.

Western diplomats said the incentives for Iran would be broadly based on an offer that Britain, France and Germany made last August, which Iran rejected at the time.

Iran would have to halt uranium enrichment, cease work on a heavy water nuclear reactor that could produce plutonium, agree to intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and pledge to fight terrorism.

In return, the European Union offered Iran help with civilian nuclear technology, a long-term accord on trade and investment, and recognition of Iran's "important role" and interest in regional security.

The Bush administration didn't oppose the proposal when it was first made.

A Western diplomat said the Europeans hope to get the United States and Russia to join in making the offer to Tehran.

Some experts said that with the huge risks of taking military action to stop Iran's nuclear ambition—increased terrorism, military retaliation in the region and higher oil prices—the Bush administration has little choice but to back the European approach if it hopes to get eventual support for punitive measures.

"I don't think there is any chance to get an international consensus for punitive steps until the administration plays all of its positive cards," said former senior U.S. diplomat James Dobbins, now at the RAND Corp., a policy research organization.

A European diplomat added: "The change in (U.S.) tone is obvious. The readiness to have a multilateral dialogue is something we all appreciate."

The shift in approach came after Rice, in more than three hours of meetings with her counterparts Monday night, failed to get Russia and China to agree to a tough resolution threatening sanctions against Iran.

Still, key differences remain.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said Tuesday that security guarantees for Iran should be considered as part of the offer.

But earlier, a senior State Department official told reporters that the United States wouldn't offer Iran guarantees against an attack. The official briefed reporters on condition of anonymity under rules imposed by the State Department.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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