By James Gerstenzang, Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON In a major concession to European allies and a blow to the administration's most conservative supporters, the United States has agreed to abandon its objections to Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today.
President Bush had come under increasing pressure to show tangible support for an effort by Britain, France and Germany, the so-called European Union 3, to provide economic concessions to Iran if the government there would provide guarantees that it would not use a civilian nuclear energy program to mask the development of nuclear armaments.
"In order to support the EU-3's diplomacy, the president has decided that the U.S. will drop its objection to Iran's application to the World Trade Organization and will consider, on a case by case basis, the licensing of spare parts for Iranian civilian aircraft, in particular from the EU to Iran," Rice said in a statement.
The decision drew quick and sharp criticism from foreign policy conservatives who have been pressing Bush to follow a strict line regarding Iran's nuclear program.
"It's a mistake," said Michael Rubin, a former U.S. adviser in Iraq now at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "It is rewarding bad behavior. The lessons that every other country is going to take is that if you mismanage your economy and get yourself into a tight position, the answer is proliferate, proliferate, proliferate, and the Americans will bail you out."
Others with long-held expertise in the region presented the decision as one that had a chance of success and by joining the United States with the European Union, might at least insulate Washington from blame if it fails.
"Past experience has shown us that when the U.S. and the EU work in harmony toward a common goal in negotiations with Iran, it does catch their attention," said Judith Yaphe, an Iran specialist at National Defense University. "It works."
And, Yaphe said, while the effort to strike an arrangement with Iran may eventually fail, by teaming with the Europeans in promoting negotiations, the Bush administration would escape bearing the blame if negotiations fall apart.
Last Saturday, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, said his country would resume its uranium enrichment program if the negotiations with the European trio failed and issued a blunt warning to the United States.
He said that the impositions of sanctions by the United Nations Security Council at the instigation of the United States would make the Middle East more unstable, warning Washington against "playing with fire."
"The first to suffer from a crisis in the region will be America," he said. He warned that oil prices could climb higher, damaging Western economies. And, he noted, U.S. troops remain nearby, on Iran's border in Iraq.
Washington has accused Iran of secretly developing a nuclear weapons program and has threatened to seek sanctions. Thus, the decision to lend support to Iran's membership in the trade organization was a step back from the stick Washington had been waving, and instead offering a carrot of economic progress.
Iranian authorities have insisted that their nuclear technology is intended for peaceful purposes only and that nuclear fuel will be used in power plants to generate electricity.
Iran suspended its uranium enrichment program last year as part of a series of voluntary confidence-building measures in its talks with Britain, France and Germany.
The degree to which Iran will alter its course as a result of the offer remains far from certain. It has been adamant in stating that it would not shift its policies in exchange for economic concessions.
In her statement, Rice said: "We share the desire of European governments to secure Iran's adherence to its obligations through peaceful and diplomatic means. Today's announcement demonstrates that we are prepared to take practical steps to support European efforts to this end. The spotlight must remain on Iran, and on Iran's obligation to live up to its international commitments."
She added that the United States shared the concerns of the European governments about Iran's human rights record, democracy and Tehran's "support for terrorism."
Noting efforts by Washington to steer Israelis and Palestinians toward reconciliation, she said, "Iran must cease its support for those groups who use violence to oppose Middle East peace."