New York Times: President Bush has authorized the most significant American diplomatic contact with Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, sending the State Department’s third-ranking official to Geneva for a meeting this weekend on Iran’s nuclear program, administration officials said Tuesday.
The New York Times
By STEVEN LEE MYERS
Published: July 16, 2008
WASHINGTON — President Bush has authorized the most significant American diplomatic contact with Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, sending the State Department’s third-ranking official to Geneva for a meeting this weekend on Iran’s nuclear program, administration officials said Tuesday.
The decision appeared to bend, if not exactly break, the administration’s insistence that it would not negotiate with Iran over its nuclear programs unless it first suspended uranium enrichment, as demanded by three resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.
Still, after months of accusations and counteraccusations from the United States and Iran, the meeting raised the prospect of an intensified diplomatic push to resolve concerns over Iranian nuclear activity, not unlike the lengthy and painstaking talks that resulted in a deal last month with North Korea.
William J. Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, will attend a meeting on Saturday with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of an official announcement on Wednesday.
At the meeting, Mr. Jalili is expected to present Iran’s formal response to a package of economic and diplomatic incentives that Germany and the Security Council’s five permanent members, Russia, China, France, Britain and the United States, presented Iran in June. Representatives from those countries will also attend the meeting.
The United States did not have a representative at the June meeting.
The package, which revived an earlier European offer to provide civilian nuclear assistance and increased trade, met at first with official disdain in Iran but has since prompted conflicting signals among senior Iranian officials. That led the administration to conclude that there could be more chance of a diplomatic resolution than some Iranian declarations and a battery of missile tests last week suggested.
Mr. Bush approved the contact “to press the advantage,” a second official said. The officials emphasized that Mr. Burns’s participation was a one-time decision, that he would not meet one-on-one with Mr. Jalili and that he would reiterate the administration’s demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment.
The United States, along with some other countries, contends that the enrichment activity is part of an effort to build nuclear weapons, which Iran denies.
Clifford Kupchan of the Eurasia Group, a consultancy in Washington, said the meeting, even with strict limits, was “a much-needed and an extremely welcome correction” in the Bush administration’s policy.
He said that there was now at least “a perception of opportunity” that the international confrontation over Iran could be resolved without war.
Mr. Kupchan said that the meeting would be the highest-level contact for Iran with the United States since the revolution, and that, more important, it would deal with the fundamental dispute between Iran and the international community.
“Disclaimers notwithstanding,” he added, “the precondition that Iran must suspend before the U.S. will talk about the nuclear issue will by every standard have been dropped.”
After nearly three decades of isolation and hostility, American and Iranian ambassadors have met to discuss security matters in Iraq. Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, both attended a regional conference in Egypt, sitting in the same room but not meeting.
The administration has repeatedly said Ms. Rice was prepared to hold talks with Iran anywhere on any subject, provided that the country first stop enrichment.
The decision to allow the contact follows what Mr. Bush and other administration officials have described as a strategy to intensify sanctions and other punitive measures while offering Iran the prospect of easing its isolation.
“The message to the Iranian government is very clear: that there’s a better way forward than isolation, and that is for you to verifiably suspend your enrichment program,” Mr. Bush said in Germany last month, rebutting reports that he was determined to confront Iran militarily. “And the choice is theirs to make.”