GENEVA — The United States and Iran, poised to meet Saturday in Geneva in their first face-to-face talks on Iran's nuclear program, sent more signals Friday that they may be ready to step away from confrontation and begin a grueling process to resolve three decades of hostility.
Until now, the Bush administration had refused to hold direct talks with Iran, except under the precondition that Iran heed U.N. demands to suspend uranium enrichment, a process that can produce nuclear-weapons fuel. Iran, which says it's legally enriching uranium to produce fuel for power-generating reactors, on Friday welcomed the sudden U.S. reversal of policy.
"The new negotiating process (and) the participation of a U.S. diplomat look positive from the outset," Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said during a visit to Turkey. "We hope that is reflected in the talks."
He praised Bush's decision to send Undersecretary of State William Burns, the third most senior American diplomat, to the talks as "a new positive approach."
Mottaki said he also hoped that deals could be reached on direct air links between Iran and the United States and the opening of the first American diplomatic office in Tehran since the sides broke relations after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated Friday that the Bush administration won't enter full-scale negotiations with Iran until it agrees to a full freeze of uranium enrichment.
"It should be very clear to everyone, the United States has a condition for the beginning of negotiations with Iran, and that condition remains the verifiable suspension of Iran's enrichment and reprocessing activities," Rice said in Washington.
The shift to direct talks follows months of rising tensions over the nuclear issue, fueled by Iranian missile launches, U.S. and Israeli threats to destroy what they charge is a secret Iranian nuclear-weapons program and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's calls for Israel's destruction.
The Geneva talks between European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, were called to hear the formal Iranian response to a package of economic, political and security incentives offered by the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.
In return, Iran must suspend its uranium enrichment work — something it's repeatedly refused to do — and open negotiations on the future of the nuclear program it hid from international monitoring for 18 years.
New to the equation is Burns, who just took over the State Department's No. 3 post. He played a key role in secret U.S. and British talks with Libya that convinced Tripoli to give up its weapons of mass destruction programs and, in 2003, was the official who received a faxed offer from Iran to open wide-ranging talks with the United States, noted Barbara Slavin, the author of a book on U.S.-Iranian relations, "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies." The Bush administration rejected the offer.
To encourage Iran, the powers are offering to withhold new sanctions on the country for six weeks if it freezes the installation of centrifuges — the machines used to produce low-enriched and highly enriched uranium — for the same period.
Iran gave mixed signals to the offer, which Solana carried to Tehran in June. But some experts and diplomats said that Tehran and the United States had good reasons for proceeding.
Iran, they said, appears anxious to avert new European Union sanctions due to be implemented next week, which would deal fresh blows to its flagging economy, including a freeze on the assets of its largest bank.
Tehran already is having difficulty financing its exports and attracting badly needed foreign investment after three rounds of U.N. sanctions and U.S. and EU actions that have prompted major banks to stop doing business with Iran.
Iran also appears to be taking seriously threats of military strikes against its nuclear facilities by Israel and the United States, they said.
Iran's leaders "can't sleep comfortably at night knowing that this (threat) isn't dead and buried," said a diplomat who deals with Iran and who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
With six months remaining to salvage his legacy, Bush may be hoping to ease some of the stress on the slumping U.S. economy — and help his party's prospective presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — by reducing tensions with Iran, which have helped drive world petroleum prices to record highs.
"The politics in the United States are important," noted Mohsen Sazegawa, a former Iranian deputy prime minister and a scholar who heads the U.S.-based Research Institute for Contemporary Iran.
Moreover, U.S. military and diplomatic leaders appear to have convinced Bush that the economic, political and security costs of a conflict with Iran over its nuclear program would be too high, and that the United States could use Iran's cooperation in stabilizing war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Bush administration accuses Iran of backing Shiite Muslim militiamen who've been attacking U.S. troops in Iraq and of providing limited arms supplies to Taliban insurgents who are fighting American and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article from Washington.)