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Rice Proposes Path to Talks With Iran on Nuclear Issue

New York Times May 31, 2006

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, abandoning the Bush administration's opposition to diplomatic contacts with Iran, said today that the United States would join European negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program if Iran suspended uranium activities that are suspected to be a cover for nuclear arms development.

Ms. Rice's announcement came after a searching internal administration debate over how to revive the stalled European-led process of engaging Iran in talks to end its suspected nuclear activity voluntarily. In recent weeks, European leaders have been increasingly vocal in asserting that direct American participation was essential to a solution with Iran.

"The United States is willing to exert strong leadership to give diplomacy its very best chance to succeed," Ms. Rice said at the State Department, in announcing the shift in American policy. She added that "the United States will come to the table" with its European partners "and meet with Iran's representative."

American officials said that the move by the Bush administration was effectively a gamble that, if it did not work in getting Iran to stop uranium enrichment, would at least demonstrate a willingness by the administration to take every reasonable step to make the negotiations succeed and pave the way for a confrontation with Iran.

The American hope was also that by making this gesture, the United States could get Russia and China to join with European- and American-led efforts to push through a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding that Iran suspend enrichment or face possible economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

In addition, Ms. Rice said again today that while pursuing its diplomatic course, President Bush did not rule out the use of force against Iran if it tries to produce nuclear weapons.

It was far from clear whether the American offer would bring Iran around, however. In the past, Iran has signaled a willingness to talk to the United States, but without preconditions. Iranian leaders have long said they regard conditional offers to talk like the one Ms. Rice made today as unacceptable.

Iran moved last summer to resume uranium enrichment, saying that this activity was aimed at developing fuel for peaceful purposes only. Iran also maintains that it is entitled to enrich uranium under various non-proliferation treaties. The West maintains that since Iran has concealed many of its activities, it has forfeited that right.

Ms. Rice's announcement brought praise from European governments, all of which had been telling the United States in private, and increasingly in public, that American participation in talks with Iran would give a boost to the negotiations.

Other European diplomats, speaking anonymously, said they were not especially confident that the American shift would overcome the impasse with Iran, in light of Iran's longstanding refusal to stop enriching nuclear fuel as a sovereign country. They suggested that Iran would be unlikely to back down in light of its pride and self-image.

The French foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, hinted also that American participation in the talks might lead others to join the process, though he did not name the countries.

"I welcome the willingness of the United States, and possibly other partners, to join in the negotiations instituted by Germany, the United Kingdom and France with Iran," Mr. Douste-Blazy said in Paris. "This strengthens the credibility of the European approach an the proposals that the Europeans want to present to Iran with the international community's support."

Ms. Rice was due to fly to Vienna later today to meet with her counterparts from Russia, China and the leading nations of Europe.

Their goal, American officials said, was to complete a package of incentives to be offered to Iran if it suspends uranium enrichment, and a threat of taking the matter to the United Nations Security Council if Iran remains in defiance.

Ms. Rice said there was "substantial agreement" on a package, but she suggested that some details remained to be worked out. Her aides clearly hoped that the announcement about talking with Iran would improve the atmosphere, possibly bringing the Russians and Chinese along.

The United States, Britain and France favor a resolution to be adopted by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the United Nations charter. Invoking Chapter VII implies to Council members that sanctions are likely if Iran refuses.

Russia and China are opposed to invoking Chapter VII. To get them to go along with a resolution, the United States has agreed to explicit assurances that sanctions would not be adopted without another vote of the Security Council, and that the threat of military force was not part of this process.

Russia, fearing a replay of the months leading up to the Iraq war in 2003 and 2004, has insisted on such language because it charges that the United States used resolution on Iraq in that period as a pretext for its going to war to oust Saddam Hussein.

Ms. Rice's announcement on Iran was a surprise. As recently as a few days ago, European officials disclosed that they knew that Ms. Rice was pushing for a reconsideration of the Bush administration's longstanding ban on talks with Iran. But they also said they did not expect a decision to come quickly.

Ms. Rice was understood to have argued that making the offer to talk conditional, the United States was making an acceptable adjustment of its policy of not recognizing the legitimacy of a regime that the United States has refused to talk to for decades.

The tone of the Secretary of State's announcement was anything but friendly toward Iran. She said repeatedly that the United States still objected to many aspects of Iran's behavior, not just its nuclear fuel activities.

She cited what she said was Iran's support for violent insurgents in Iraq and its support of other acts of violence against Israeli, American and other civilians in the Middle East.

The Bush administration has not entirely frozen Iran out, even since Mr. Bush labeled Iran along with Iraq and North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union message in early 2002.

The United States held small contacts with Iranian officials during the war in Afghanistan and the early stages of the war with Iraq. Iraq and Afghanistan are neighbors of Iran, and Iran has long wielded influence over their internal affairs.

American talks with Iran were cut off in mid-2003 after the United States charged Iranian involvement in the bombing of civilians in Saudi Arabia. But there were talks at the end of that year and the beginning of 2004 to speed American relief to Iran after the earthquake in Bam.

In addition, last year Ms. Rice announced that the American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, would be authorized to talk with Iranian officials about the internal situation in Iraq, including cross-border infiltration of insurgents and aid to Shiite militias in Iraq. But these talks have not taken place.

Steven R. Weisman reported from Washington for this article and John O'Neil from New York. Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting from Washington.


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