the ruling clerics from acquiring nuclear weapons.
By Alec Russell in Washington
Washington announced a major shift in its policy on Iran yesterday when it agreed to back Europe in offering economic incentives for Teheran to abandon its nuclear programme.
The decision is the fruit of months of transatlantic diplomatic wrangling over the best way to stop the ruling clerics from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The White House has long abhorred the merest hint of negotiation over Iran's nuclear ambitions. But America extracted a key commitment from Europe in return, which hawks hope will leave the way open for a tougher approach.
In a joint statement yesterday, Britain, Germany and France said they would support Washington in reporting Iran to the United Nations Security Council if it failed to halt its nuclear programme.
America has been in a stand-off with Iran since Islamist students occupied its embassy in Teheran in 1979. Its new policy falls far short of a rapprochement but it is among the more emollient gestures from Washington in 25 years.
Announcing the new joint approach, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, denied it was a change of policy. She also insisted it was not a reward to Iran for bad behaviour.
"The Europeans have a strategy which is to show the Iranians that if they are prepared to live up to their international obligations there is an alternative path to confrontation and there is a path to a better future," she said. "We are supporting that diplomacy but this is most assuredly giving the Europeans a stronger hand, not rewarding the Iranians."
The centrepiece of the plan is for Washington not to block Iran's entry to the World Trade Organisation, and the sale of spare parts to revamp its decrepit fleet of civilian airliners.
The "hawks" in the Bush administration are affronted at the offer of "carrots" to Iran's theocratic regime. They fear it could lead to endless new rounds of diplomacy, delay any serious attempt to bring Iran to book and allow Teheran more time to arm.
But privately many in the administration believe the "engagement" will fail, that the mullahs will spurn the overtures, and also that having signed up to the incentives, America cannot be blamed if diplomacy fails as it was in the countdown to the war against Iraq.
"This is the fourth last chance we've given them," said Michael Rubin, of the neo-conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, and a former Iran adviser at the Pentagon. "Every time Jack Straw gets up and says: 'Under no circumstances will there be military action', the Iranians say, 'Under no circumstances do we need to compromise'.
"Iran is not sincere. It is running out the clock; it is injury time and it is up by one goal."
It was widely noted yesterday that it was the state department, not the White House, that announced the change of tack.
The compromise was first floated during President George W Bush's reconciliatory tour of Europe last month and has been thrashed out over the past two weeks. Washington's involvement is to be kept to the minimum. It will leave the negotiations to the Europeans, the sale of spare parts will be considered on a case by case basis and rather than backing Iran's membership of the WTO, it has agreed not to oppose it.
The statement made no mention of possible sanctions against Iran. "Progress is not as fast as we would have liked but we believe we are moving in the right direction," it said. There was no immediate response from Teheran.
Iran agreed last year to a temporary halt to its uranium enrichment programme, but it insists that its nuclear programme, developed in secret over the past two decades, is for its civilian energy needs and says it will never give it up.
Pressure will soon grow in Washington for a referral to the UN Security Council and diplomats can expect an uncompromising stance from America.