By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON - The United States wants Europe to take a harder line toward Iran if Washington supports incentives for Tehran and Iranian authorities still refuse to give up their nuclear program, U.S. officials said on Friday.
The United States would like Britain, France and Germany, the so-called EU3 who are trying to negotiate an end to Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, to back taking Iran to the U.N. Security Council and perhaps imposing U.N. sanctions.
"We'd love to get both," said one U.S. official who asked not to be named and who noted that it would be hard to persuade the Europeans to explicitly back U.N. sanctions at present.
"We've talked about having some kind of assurance that if this effort fails then the recourse is to bring this to the Security Council but we have not been able to achieve that (so far)," the official added.
After an agreement appeared close this week, several U.S. officials predicted it would take some time -- anywhere from one to several weeks -- to work out an agreement on the question of U.S. support for offering Iran incentives.
Incentives under discussion are the United States dropping its opposition to Iran joining the World Trade Organization and allowing the sale of spare parts for Iran's aging fleet of U.S.-made civilian airliners.
"We're trying to work out a package and an end game, if you will," said another U.S. official, suggesting that the United States did not want to make a gesture without some assurance that if the EU3 negotiations fail a harder line will follow.
Asked if the United States was trying to get the Europeans to back its long-standing push to have the International Atomic Energy Agency refer Iran to the Security Council, which could impose sanctions, this official replied, "Exactly."
The first official said backing incentives was a tactical maneuver and that many in the Bush administration believed Iran would never abandon its suspected pursuit of nuclear arms and Washington wants to avoid being blamed if the talks collapse.
"We are inoculating ourselves," said he said. "We can adopt the tactic of tying ourselves to the European approach without fundamentally believing it's going to succeed."
"We don't think the Iranians have given up on (acquiring) a nuclear bomb or that any amount of coaxing ... is going to convince them otherwise," he added.
The EU3 have offered Iran economic and political incentives if it abandons its uranium enrichment program, which could produce fuel for nuclear power plants or atomic weapons.
Tehran has temporarily frozen most of the program but has refused to abandon it.
Washington accuses Iran of developing nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy program. Tehran denies that, insisting its aim is the peaceful generation of electricity.
Rep. Tom Lantos of California, the House International Relations Committee's top Democrat, said there needed to be a time limit set in advance on the EU3 talks and an EU3 promise to "freeze any additional investments" in Iran after this.
"We have to play this like an intelligent chess player, agreeing on all the steps at the beginning of the game," Lantos told Reuters late on Thursday. "If we don't do that we will end up negotiating with the Europeans and not with the Iranians."
A European diplomat said a freeze on investments was not part of the current U.S.-European discussions.
He said he would view U.S. support on Iran's WTO bid and on spare parts as a small gesture unlikely to have a huge impact on Iran but it is the "camel's nose under the tent" that would finally get Washington more closely tied to the EU initiative. (Additional reporting by Carol Giacomo)