it would support the British-French-German initiative to offer Tehran limited economic incentives to forsake the enrichment of uranium. The Times
From Roland Watson in Washington
PRESIDENT BUSH backed European efforts to persuade Iran to drop its nuclear ambitions, opening the way for a country the US views with hostility eventually to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
In the first foreign policy compromise of Mr Bushs second term, Washington said that it would support the British-French-German initiative to offer Tehran limited economic incentives to forsake the enrichment of uranium.
The so-called European Three group (E3) now has US approval to offer Tehran the spare Boeing parts it badly needs for its ageing commercial airliners, as well as opening talks on WTO membership, which is high on Tehrans wish-list. Iran, though, can claim those carrots only if it pledges to end its uranium enrichment programme.
In return for US support, the E3 would back moves against Iran if the talks break down and are referred to the United Nations Security Council.
I am pleased that we are speaking with one voice with our European friends, President Bush said.
I look forward to working with our European friends to make it abundantly clear to the Iranian regime that the free world will not tolerate them having a nuclear weapon.
A senior US official, briefing White House reporters, later played down the significance of the move. We are giving a couple of chips to the Europeans to play in their negotiations with the Iranians, he said. This is not us dealing directly with the Iranians.
Iran was equally dismissive, describing the American offer as insignificant. Iran has made clear that it has no intention of stopping its uranium enrichment programme.
Tehran insists that the enriched uranium is for its soon-to-open nuclear power station. The US believes that the power station is a cover for Iran to build an atomic arsenal.
Separately, Iran has promised to return all the spent nuclear fuel it imports from Russia rather than extract plutonium, which provides an alternative route to a nuclear bomb.
The US doubts that Iran will keep its promise. Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, had argued for a limited form of US engagement in the Iranian talks being driven by E3 on behalf of the European Union.
The announcement, made initially by Dr Rice, marks a significant shift for the US, which has viewed Iran with hostility a feeling that is mutual since the 1979 Iranian revolution that ejected the Shah and ushered in the current theocratic regime. The scars from the hostage crisis of that same time, when 66 Americans were seized, 52 of them being held for 444 days, remain deep.
Mr Bush had to overcome scepticism, in particular from Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, about the wisdom of engaging with Iran, but the proposals are unlikely to run into opposition on Capitol Hill.
First, the US will remain at arms length from the process rather than sit around the same table as Iran.
The economic incentives are also modest. The negotiation of WTO membership takes years and would bring about pro-Western changes to the Iranian economy. As importantly, the US expects the E3s talks to run into the sand.
Richard Perle, the former chairman of the Pentagons Defence Policy Review Board and one of Washingtons most influential hawks, said that it was important for the US to be seen as a willing negotiator. If you look like you wont take yes for an answer, you pay a heavy political price, he said.
Mr Perle cautioned, how- ever: I wouldnt start sharpening my pencil if I was a WTO negotiator or take out my order book if I worked for Boeing.