WASHINGTON—The United States will join negotiations with arch-foe Iran if it immediately suspends uranium-enrichment work, which could be used for nuclear weapons, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Wednesday in a dramatic turn in policy.
The shift is aimed at testing Iran's willingness to embrace a diplomatic resolution to the crisis over its nuclear program and Russian and Chinese readiness to support punitive sanctions if the Islamic regime balks.
The Bush administration previously had refused pleas from Britain, France and Germany to participate in talks with Iran, which President Bush in 2002 included in an "axis of evil," along with Iraq and North Korea.
Rice told a briefing that "as soon as Iran fully and verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities," the United States will join the three European countries, known as the EU-3, in direct talks with Iran on the future of its nuclear program.
The offer is part of a package of proposals to Iran that Rice and her European, Russian and Chinese counterparts hope to finalize Thursday in Vienna, Austria.
"The Iranian regime must persuasively demonstrate that it has permanently abandoned its quest for nuclear weapons," Rice said. She also said the United States acknowledged that Iran had a right to civilian nuclear energy.
There was no immediate official response from Tehran, where Rice's message was transmitted by the Swiss, who act as intermediaries between the United States and Iran, which have no diplomatic relations.
John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, shortly before Rice spoke to tell him about her announcement. Bolton's spokesman, Richard Grenell, said the two men had never talked before.
Iranian officials have floated conditional offers of talks with Washington in recent weeks.
Some senior members of Bush's national security team, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, are thought to oppose any talks with Iran and to favor taking steps to undermine or overthrow the Tehran regime.
But the White House has been under pressure for months from Europe, lawmakers of both parties and former top diplomats from Republican and Democratic administrations to drop its refusal to talk to Iran.
European diplomats argued privately that negotiations with Iran on ending what European and American officials believe is a covert nuclear-weapons program would never succeed without direct U.S. involvement.
"My decision today says that the United States is going to take a leadership position in solving this issue," Bush said after Rice's announcement.
Iran says its enrichment program is strictly to produce low-enriched uranium for civilian power reactors, not highly enriched uranium for weapons.
The American offer appeared to contain a second significant concession: dropping a previous demand that Iran permanently abandon all enrichment work because it concealed its program from U.N. inspectors for 18 years.
A U.S. official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue said it could take Iran up to eight years to meet all the conditions set for ensuring that it wasn't pursuing nuclear weapons and to win acceptance of its right to resume producing low-enriched uranium.
"If they can prove to the satisfaction of . . . the international community and the IAEA (the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency) that they are not developing nuclear weapons, we can imagine Iran resuming pursuit of the (nuclear reactor) fuel cycle," he said.
Rice said the United States, Britain, Germany and France had agreed on the "essential elements" of the package to be discussed in Vienna.
They want a suspension of Iran's uranium-enrichment program and full disclosure of key details of the program, including purchases of weapons-related know-how from an international smuggling ring. Tehran also would have to allow the IAEA to resume snap inspections of its nuclear facilities.
If it agreed, it would be offered economic and political rewards, including sales of advanced light-water power reactors to meet its growing energy needs and access to a five-year supply of low-enriched uranium fuel overseen by the IAEA, U.S. and European officials have said.
If Tehran rejects the demands, sanctions would include restrictions on new foreign investment in Iran and a ban on sales of civilian technology that the country could use in its nuclear and ballistic-missile programs, U.S. and European officials have said.
Rice's announcement was widely welcomed in Europe and Asia. Israel also endorsed it.
A senior administration official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said Bush had approved the change in tactics Wednesday morning after receiving assurances from world leaders that they'd back sanctions if the outreach failed.
The official said the shift was made because of recent overtures from Iran signaling a willingness to negotiate, a desire to build support for sanctions as a fallback and concerns that delaying action would only make it harder to roll back Iran's nuclear program.
Samuel R. Berger, who was national security adviser in the Clinton administration and who advocated talks with Iran, said they were necessary to test whether a diplomatic solution was possible, they'd help get backing for tough measures if those proved necessary and that they'd show the Iranian people that it was their government that stood between them and the outside world.
Russia is resisting a proposed arms-sale embargo on Iran, the U.S. official said. Russia, Iran's main foreign arms supplier, has agreed to sell 29 sophisticated Tor-M1 antiaircraft missile units in a deal worth $800 million.
In Congress, lawmakers generally supported the administration's decision.
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said he cautiously endorsed the new discussion. "All options must be on the table if they fail to respond to the administration's overture," he said.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., urged Bush to broaden the discussion beyond Iran's nuclear program. "We should be willing to talk about all the issues that divide us: the nuclear program, terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israeli-Palestinian peace, sanctions and security," he said.
(Knight Ridder correspondents James Kuhnhenn and Ron Hutcheson contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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