In major shift, U.S. diplomat to join Iran nuclear talks Saturday

VIENNA, Austria — President Bush's decision to send a senior U.S. envoy to Europe for the first face-to-face talks with Iran on its nuclear program represents a step away from military confrontation with Tehran, and a possible move towards diplomatic resolution of the crisis.

The White House confirmed Wednesday that Bush has authorized Undersecretary of State William Burns, the department's No. 3 official, to attend talks Saturday in Geneva between European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.

It was a significant concession for an administration that has until now refused nuclear talks with Iran until it suspended its enrichment of uranium that could be used to build nuclear warheads.

Burns will have no authority to negotiate, officials said, and it remains unclear whether Iran is ready to respond positively to an enhanced offer that Solana presented last month on behalf of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.

Nonetheless, his presence appears to be another sign that the Bush administration in its final months is focusing on diplomacy — not military force — to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, and that State Department and military officers who oppose a strike on Iran have the upper hand for now.

"It sends a strong signal to the world and a strong signal to the Iranian government that the United States is committed to diplomacy," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

The U.S. move does not mean a resolution of the six-year-old dispute will be achieved before Bush leaves office in six months, diplomats and private analysts said.

Diplomats in Vienna, home of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and in Washington doubt that Iran will engage in real bargaining until Bush leaves office. Seething distrust and tensions punctuate the U.S.-Iran relationship, fueled by the nuclear dispute; competing U.S. and Iranian aims in Iraq; Iran's backing of alleged terror groups and a host of other issues.

"It would be a big achievement if they just sit down and talk and agree to meet again," said a diplomat in Vienna who follows the issue but spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

"The folks in Tehran are waiting for a new administration," said the diplomat.

Jalili is expected to present Solana on Saturday with Iran's formal response to the six-nation proposal, which includes a medley of political, economic and security rewards for Iran in return for suspending uranium enrichment and opening negotiations on its nuclear program.

Iran's leaders have repeatedly rejected that condition — which is also contained in three U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions -- insisting that Iran has the right under international law to make nuclear fuel for civilian power plants. They deny that the program they hid from U.N. inspectors for 18 years is for bombs.

Over the last few weeks, Iranian officials have sent mixed signals about their willingness to compromise.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters in New York earlier this month that Tehran is "seriously" examining the proposal. But Mottaki, in a July 4 letter to the six powers, reportedly made no mention of the uranium enrichment demand.

Some experts believe Tehran wants to resolve the nuclear stand-off as part of a wider accord that addresses all outstanding differences with the United States, lifts sanctions and restores diplomatic ties broken since shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution. The Bush administration refused to consider such a "grand bargain" when Tehran proposed it in 2003.

But nuclear enrichment "has now become a very powerful symbol" of Iranian national pride that is being used by the regime to tamp down growing public discontent over rampant inflation and unemployment, the diplomat said.

While White House spokesman Dana Perino insisted that there had been no change in the U.S. position, the decision to dispatch Burns, a career diplomat, was the latest compromise the Bush administration has made in the last three years.

"For all practical purposes, the Bush administration's precondition that Iran must suspend uranium enrichment before the U.S. will hold talks has been shelved," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, which advocates a diplomatic resolution of the dispute.

After taking office in 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice persuaded Bush to give full backing to European negotiations with Iran. U.S. officials also have held direct talks in Baghdad with Iranian counterparts on Iraq's stability.

Recently, to encourage Tehran to accept the latest offer, the powers have told Iran they would freeze consideration of new sanctions for six weeks if Iran refrained from adding new centrifuges — the devices used to enrich uranium — to the more than 3,000 it is now running.

Before full-scale negotiations could begin, however, Tehran would have to fully suspend uranium enrichment.

If Iran rejects the latest offer, it could offer ammunition to critics of diplomacy, led by Vice President Dick Cheney.

(Strobel reported from Washington.)