Bush tries new approach with Iran

July 17, 2008 5:35:19 PM PDT
The Bush administration is changing course on Iran in its final months. The hope is that engagement can jolt a stagnant effort to resolve concerns about Tehran's disputed nuclear program where war drums could not. The U.S. has shifted from its long-standing confrontational policy of isolating Iran in favor of a diplomatic approach that resembles the direction taken to get North Korea to give up its atomic arms.

The administration will, for the first time, send a senior envoy to talks with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator. Until the weekend meeting in Switzerland, the U.S. has insisted it would not speak with the Iranians until they end the suspect activities.

In addition, the administration is floating a proposal to open a de facto U.S. Embassy in Tehran. U.S. diplomats would go to Iran for the first time in nearly 30 years since the countries broke relations after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Neither move guarantees results. There are still hawks who oppose the tactical switch, still underpinned by broad penalties against Iran and President Bush's refusal to rule out any option, including force, to keep Iran from developing the bomb.

But officials who have championed these separate but parallel drives say new, creative ideas must be tried if the threat posed by Iran is to be contained or eliminated by the end of Bush's second term in January.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her new third-in-command at the State Department, William Burns, have been among the most vocal proponents of the new direction, officials say. Burns will represent the U.S. at Saturday's meeting with Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili in Geneva.

Burns will then meet with Rice on Monday in Abu Dhabi where they will brief senior Arab officials wary of Iran's intentions on the latest developments.

Rice said Thursday the administration's decision to send Burns to the talks proves that the United States is committed to diplomacy and shows that the world is united in trying to deal with Iran's nuclear program. That program, along with recent military muscle flexing in the Persian Gulf, has spiked tensions and spooked oil markets.

"The point that we're making is the United States is firmly behind this diplomacy, firmly behind and unified with our allies and hopefully the Iranians will take that message," she told reporters. "It's going to be very clear to them" that the group of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - and Germany, and other countries are united.

The six-nation group has offered Iran incentives to halt activities that could lead the development of nuclear weapons. If Iran declines the offer, as it has done with previous ones, it will face new penalties.

Officials say Burns will be listening, not negotiating, at the meeting that they insist is a "one-time event." But his mere presence signals a significant change in Bush's approach toward Iran, a charter member of what he termed the "axis of evil" in 2002.

Bush has chosen different routes in dealing with the other two members of that group: The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and embarked on tortuous negotiations to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons. The latter effort will come into sharper focus next week when Rice meets senior Asian officials, possibly including the North Korean foreign minister, in Singapore after her stop in Abu Dhabi.

The White House insists it will not negotiate with Iran as it has with North Korea until Tehran halts enriching and reprocessing uranium. But it is supporting an effort led by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana that would allow early talks with others in six-nation group before such a step.

Iran has rebuffed the attempt to persuade it to stop enrichment and reprocessing, which can produce the key ingredient for atomic weapons, and insists its nuclear program is designed only to produce power. Others, particularly the United States and Israel, maintain it is a cover for weapons development.

Amid discussions on the incentives plan presented to Iran last month, Rice and Burns have pushed for the administration to open an "interest section" in Tehran, similar to the one it operates in Havana that would allow for greater U.S. outreach to the Iranian people.

"We want to have people-to-people contact with the Iranian people," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday.

Despite reports that an announcement of such a move could come within a month, senior officials familiar with the proposal say no decision has yet been made and that the idea, which The Associated Press reported last month, remains under active consideration.

Since the proposal became public in June, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said his government would be willing to consider a request from the United States to establish a diplomatic outpost in Tehran. The United States has yet to make such a request, officials said.