Los Angeles Times: President Bush and his closest foreign policy advisers convene Thursday to grapple with an important shift in U.S. policy toward Iran: how best to support a European diplomatic initiative to prevent the Middle East nation from becoming a nuclear weapons state. The discussions follow a working lunch Wednesday at the White House that included Vice President Dick Cheney, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during which the Europeans’ strategy to offer economic incentives was discussed, according to administration officials. Los Angeles Times
By Tyler Marshall
WASHINGTON – President Bush and his closest foreign policy advisers convene Thursday to grapple with an important shift in U.S. policy toward Iran: how best to support a European diplomatic initiative to prevent the Middle East nation from becoming a nuclear weapons state.
The discussions follow a working lunch Wednesday at the White House that included Vice President Dick Cheney, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during which the Europeans’ strategy to offer economic incentives was discussed, according to administration officials.
The issue is potentially divisive, with more conservative elements within the administration opposed in principle to any contact with Iran, arguing that it only would serve to strengthen what they view as an illegitimate and oppressive regime.
Rice attended the lunch shortly after returning from London where she conferred with foreign ministers of the initiative’s three main sponsors — Britain, France and Germany. Following those consultations, Rice used the clearest language yet to signal an impending shift in U.S. policy on Iran.
“I’ve had further discussions with my European colleagues and we are designing, I think, an important common strategy with Europe so that Iran knows there is no other way,” Rice said in an interview with NBC released Wednesday.
“We’ve said we support the diplomacy, that this issue can be resolved diplomatically if there is a common front, and that is what the president is looking at,” Rice said.
Rice avoided details and a senior administration official said it was “premature” to say what the United States might offer.
Both Europe and the United States have concluded there is strong evidence that Iran is trying to development nuclear weapons, but have differed on how to prevent it. Iran denies it has a nuclear weapons program and contends it is within its legal right to pursue peaceful nuclear energy.
Europeans are working to negotiate a trade-off in which Tehran would give up any enrichment program that could be associated with nuclear weapons in return for economic and technology assistance and security guarantees. The United States so far has flatly refused any direct talks with Iran.
Under Bush, American diplomatic efforts on Iran have focused on urging the International Atomic Energy Agency to haul Tehran before the U.N. Security Council for alleged violations of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
While the Security Council could theoretically invoke punitive sanctions against Iran, U.N. action is seen as unlikely, since France and Britain — two of the three European sponsors of the diplomatic initiative — have veto power in the Council.
Still, there were clear signs Wednesday the administration had not given up that goal. In Vienna, Austria, Reuters news agency reported that the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, Jackie Sanders, declared the IAEA’s governing board had a “statutory obligation” to refer Iran to the Security Council for possible sanctions.
Neoconservatives in the Bush administration and Republican Party have acted to reinforce the U.S. refusal to engage Iran. More moderate policymakers have advocated engagement, but have been unable to win the president’s backing.
Many Iranians opposed to the current government in Tehran also bitterly oppose support for negotiations that that they fear Iran could use to delay in coming to terms with international demands.
“We’re racing against the nuclear clock,” said Alirezah Jafarzadeh, a former spokesman for the National Council of Resistance in Iran, a group banned as a terrorist organization in the United States that first unveiled evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. “The international community must act strongly and quickly on this.”
Indications of a shift within the Bush administration came last week after the president softened his language on the European-Iranian talks, seeming to distance himself from his earlier stance against engaging Tehran diplomatically.
Few believe Bush will decide to join directly in the European-Iranian negotiations, but any U.S. support for the talks is considered significant. Europeans have stressed that their efforts to encourage Tehran to give up a weapons program would only be meaningful with U.S. backing.
The Iranians reportedly are seeking security guarantees, help in gaining admittance to the World Trade Organization and modernization of its largely American-made civil aviation fleet. U.S. support is considered crucial to the success of any of those benefits.
“There are things we’re discussing that will never happen without a green light from Washington,” said a European diplomat.