"A surprise" was what the New York Times called U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's offer on Wednesday to engage Iran directly in talks in return for the suspension of uranium enrichment and reprocessing. -- According to unnamed "American officials," the offer is "a gamble that, if it did not work in getting Iran to stop uranium enrichment, would at least demonstrate a willingness by the administration to take every reasonable step to make the negotiations succeed and pave the way for a confrontation with Iran." -- The proposal's purpose is not so much to influence Iranian behavior, but rather to bring Russia and China on board its diplomatic and strategic offensive. -- Neither goal is likely to be achieved. -- As Steven Weisman observed, "Iranian leaders have long said they regard conditional offers to talk like the one Ms. Rice made today as unacceptable." -- Although he noted that "Ms. Rice was due to fly to Vienna later today to meet with her counterparts from Russia, China, and the leading nations of Europe," Weisman did not attempt to estimate the chances that Russia and China would be affected by the offer. -- The Washington Post called the announcement "a dramatic shift in policy for the Bush administration" and reported that "White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush spoke on the phone yesterday with the leaders of France, Germany, and Russia, and they each signed off on the approach. He said he did not know China's position." -- But Snow also said that "[t]here are not going to be one-on-one talks with Iran," and Condoleezza Rice in her announcement again called Iran "the leading state sponsor of terror." -- The Jerusalem Post reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had been briefed on the initiative when visiting the White House last week. -- A companion piece by Herb Keinon in the Jerusalem Post called talks with Iran "a necessary precondition to any possible future use of force," and cited "[o]ne source with close ties to the State Department" who said that "it was just a matter of time before the U.S. started to negotiate with Iran." -- "Bush had to show his European allies, as well as his domestic audience," according to this source, "that he was willing to exhaust all diplomatic efforts to try and solve the problem, before gaining support for sanctions or possibly resorting to military measures." ...
RICE PROPOSES PATH TO TALKS WITH IRAN ON NUCLEAR ISSUE
By Steven R. Weisman
New York Times
May 31, 2006
[PHOTO CAPTION: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the U.S. would be willing to change course if Iran suspends all nuclear activities.]
WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, abandoning the Bush administration's opposition to diplomatic contacts with Iran, said today that the United States would join European negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program if Iran suspended uranium activities that are suspected to be a cover for nuclear arms development.
Ms. Rice's announcement came after a searching internal administration debate over how to revive the stalled European-led process of engaging Iran in talks to end its suspected nuclear activity voluntarily. In recent weeks, European leaders have been increasingly vocal in asserting that direct American participation was essential to a solution with Iran.
"The United States is willing to exert strong leadership to give diplomacy its very best chance to succeed," Ms. Rice said at the State Department, in announcing the shift in American policy. She added that "the United States will come to the table" with its European partners "and meet with Iran's representative."
American officials said that the move by the Bush administration was effectively a gamble that, if it did not work in getting Iran to stop uranium enrichment, would at least demonstrate a willingness by the administration to take every reasonable step to make the negotiations succeed and pave the way for a confrontation with Iran.
The American hope was also that by making this gesture, the United States could get Russia and China to join with European- and American-led efforts to push through a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding that Iran suspend enrichment or face possible economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
In addition, Ms. Rice said again today that while pursuing its diplomatic course, President Bush did not rule out the use of force against Iran if it tries to produce nuclear weapons.
It was far from clear whether the American offer would bring Iran around, however. In the past, Iran has signaled a willingness to talk to the United States, but without preconditions. Iranian leaders have long said they regard conditional offers to talk like the one Ms. Rice made today as unacceptable.
Iran moved last summer to resume uranium enrichment, saying that this activity was aimed at developing fuel for peaceful purposes only. Iran also maintains that it is entitled to enrich uranium under various non-proliferation treaties. The West maintains that since Iran has concealed many of its activities, it has forfeited that right.
Ms. Rice's announcement brought praise from European governments, all of which had been telling the United States in private, and increasingly in public, that American participation in talks with Iran would give a boost to the negotiations.
Other European diplomats, speaking anonymously, said they were not especially confident that the American shift would overcome the impasse with Iran, in light of Iran's longstanding refusal to stop enriching nuclear fuel as a sovereign country. They suggested that Iran would be unlikely to back down in light of its pride and self-image.
The French foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, hinted also that American participation in the talks might lead others to join the process, though he did not name the countries.
"I welcome the willingness of the United States, and possibly other partners, to join in the negotiations instituted by Germany, the United Kingdom, and France with Iran," Mr. Douste-Blazy said in Paris. "This strengthens the credibility of the European approach and the proposals that the Europeans want to present to Iran with the international community's support."
Ms. Rice was due to fly to Vienna later today to meet with her counterparts from Russia, China, and the leading nations of Europe.
Their goal, American officials said, was to complete a package of incentives to be offered to Iran if it suspends uranium enrichment, and a threat of taking the matter to the United Nations Security Council if Iran remains in defiance.
Ms. Rice said there was "substantial agreement" on a package, but she suggested that some details remained to be worked out. Her aides clearly hoped that the announcement about talking with Iran would improve the atmosphere, possibly bringing the Russians and Chinese along.
The United States, Britain, and France favor a resolution to be adopted by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the United Nations charter. Invoking Chapter VII implies to Council members that sanctions are likely if Iran refuses.
Russia and China are opposed to invoking Chapter VII. To get them to go along with a resolution, the United States has agreed to explicit assurances that sanctions would not be adopted without another vote of the Security Council, and that the threat of military force was not part of this process.
Russia, fearing a replay of the months leading up to the Iraq war in 2003 and 2004, has insisted on such language because it charges that the United States used resolution on Iraq in that period as a pretext for its going to war to oust Saddam Hussein.
Ms. Rice's announcement on Iran was a surprise. As recently as a few days ago, European officials disclosed that they knew that Ms. Rice was pushing for a reconsideration of the Bush administration's longstanding ban on talks with Iran. But they also said they did not expect a decision to come quickly.
Ms. Rice was understood to have argued that making the offer to talk conditional, the United States was making an acceptable adjustment of its policy of not recognizing the legitimacy of a regime that the United States has refused to talk to for decades.
The tone of the Secretary of State's announcement was anything but friendly toward Iran. She said repeatedly that the United States still objected to many aspects of Iran's behavior, not just its nuclear fuel activities.
She cited what she said was Iran's support for violent insurgents in Iraq and its support of other acts of violence against Israeli, American, and other civilians in the Middle East.
The Bush administration has not entirely frozen Iran out, even since Mr. Bush labeled Iran along with Iraq and North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union message in early 2002.
The United States held small contacts with Iranian officials during the war in Afghanistan and the early stages of the war with Iraq. Iraq and Afghanistan are neighbors of Iran, and Iran has long wielded influence over their internal affairs.
American talks with Iran were cut off in mid-2003 after the United States charged Iranian involvement in the bombing of civilians in Saudi Arabia. But there were talks at the end of that year and the beginning of 2004 to speed American relief to Iran after the earthquake in Bam.
In addition, last year Ms. Rice announced that the American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, would be authorized to talk with Iranian officials about the internal situation in Iraq, including cross-border infiltration of insurgents and aid to Shiite militias in Iraq. But these talks have not taken place.
--Steven R. Weisman reported from Washington for this article and John O'Neil from New York. Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting from Washington.
U.S. SETS CONDITIONS FOR TALKS WITH IRAN
By William Branigin and Glenn Kessler
May 31, 2006
The United States is willing to join European nations in direct talks with Iran if the Iranian government first agrees to suspend its programs to enrich uranium and reprocess spent nuclear fuel, activities that Washington charges are part of plans to build nuclear weapons.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, announcing the U.S. policy shift at a State Department news conference today, warned that if the Iranian government does not choose the path of negotiations and continues to pursue atomic weapons, "it will incur only great costs."
But she stopped short of confirming that the United States has obtained agreement from Russia and China to impose United Nations sanctions if Iran does not comply. She said in response to questions after a prepared statement that negotiators are still "working on a package" that includes potential penalties for noncompliance, as well as benefits if Iran accepts the deal.
The Bush administration previously had eschewed direct talks with Iran on its nuclear program, preferring to let three European Union nations -- Britain, France, and Germany, known as the EU3 -- conduct negotiations on behalf of the West. However, Germany lately has increasingly urged Washington to deal with Tehran directly. U.S. engagement with Iran is also believed to be supported by Russia and China, two nations that have resisted U.S. efforts to obtain U.N. sanctions against Iran for going ahead with its enrichment program.
"To underscore our commitment to a diplomatic solution and to enhance prospects for success, as soon as Iran fully and verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities, the United States will come to the table with our European colleagues and meet with Iran's representatives," Rice said today. She said the proposal has been conveyed to Iran through the Swiss government.
"We urge Iran to make this choice for peace, to abandon its ambition for nuclear weapons," Rice said.
Refusal to do so, she said, "will lead to international isolation and progressively stronger political and economic sanctions."
She added: "We are agreed with our European partners on the essential elements of a package containing both benefits if Iran makes the right choice and costs if it does not. We hope that, in the coming days, the Iranian government will thoroughly consider this proposal."
In response to questions, Rice refused to be pinned down on whether China and Russia -- two nations that hold U.N. Security Council vetoes and have opposed sanctions against Iran so far -- have reached agreement with Washington to support sanctions in the event negotiations fail.
Rice said the U.S. proposal will help determine "whether Iran is serious about negotiations or not."
Asked if President Bush is willing to take the U.S. military option off the table temporarily if Iran accepts negotiations, Rice said, "The president is not going to take any of his options off the table, temporarily or otherwise." But she said the United States is "committed to a diplomatic solution to this problem."
While Washington is willing to join talks with Iran on its nuclear program and other issues, Rice said, "this is not a bilateral negotiation between the United States and Iran." She said the United States still has problems with what she said was Iranian support for violent actions in Iraq and for terrorism in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon.
"Iran can and should be a responsible state, not the leading state sponsor of terror," she said. "The United States is ready to join the EU3 to press these and other issues with the Iranian government in addition to our work to resolve the nuclear danger."
Rice's remarks also were given today to the Swiss ambassador to the United States for transmission to Iran. The United States suspended diplomatic contacts with Iran in 1979, after the seizure of American diplomats there as hostages, and Switzerland handles U.S. interests in Tehran.
Rice planned to fly to Vienna after her speech to participate in talks on a package of incentives for Iran to end the impasse over its nuclear activities.
Her announcement marked a dramatic shift in policy for the Bush administration. It came after mounting calls for a dialogue with Iran from senior foreign policy experts and lawmakers, notably former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), as well as U.S. allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In Bush's first term, the administration was deeply suspicious of any dealings with Iran. When Rice became secretary last year, she engineered a shift in U.S. strategy toward stronger backing of the European talks with Iran. Today's announcement marks a further evolution of that policy shift, potentially bringing the United States to the negotiating table with a longtime foe.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush spoke on the phone yesterday with the leaders of France, Germany, and Russia, and they each signed off on the approach. He said he did not know China's position.
However, Snow played down the policy shift in his morning news briefing. "It's not going to mark a change in the U.S. position," he said. "There are not going to be one-on-one talks with Iran." He said Iran "needs to take the first step" by suspending enrichment and reprocessing activities, a move he called "the foundation stone."
--Staff writer Michael Fletcher contributed to this report.
RICE: U.S. AGREES TO ENTER DIRECT TALKS WITH IRANIAN GOV'T
By Nathan Guttman
May 31, 2006
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. announced Wednesday its willingness to enter multilateral direct talks with Iran if Teheran agrees to halt its nuclear enrichment activity. The American move is seen as a final chance for negotiating with Iran on its nuclear program.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the new initiative at a State Department press conference, after U.S. diplomats informed Iran on the suggestion both through the Swiss diplomatic mission in Teheran and by the U.N. representatives.
"The United States is willing to exert strong leadership to give diplomacy its very best chance to succeed," Rice said in her statement. "Thus, to underscore our commitment to a diplomatic solution and to enhance the prospects for success, as soon as Iran fully and verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities, the United States will come to the table with our EU-3 colleagues and meet with Iran's representatives."
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni expressed Israel's support for the U.S. proposal Wednesday evening, saying that the U.S. and Israeli governments were in agreement and "shared a broad mutual understanding" regarding the Iranian nuclear issue.
Livni stated that all agreements between Israel and the U.S. regarding Iran were discussed during Prime Minister's Ehud Olmert's visit to Washington last week.
Rice's statement represents a shift in the U.S. administration's stand, which has so far rejected calls for direct talks with Iran on its nuclear ambitions and has argued that Iran knows clearly what it has to do in order to comply with the demands of the international community.
The American proposal, according to Rice, is two-pronged. On the one side, it offers Iran a channel for negotiations that can lead to an end to the diplomatic stand off and will ensure the U.S.'s support of Iran's civilian nuclear energy plant, and on the other hand it threatens Iran with sanctions and punishments if it does not choose the path of negotiation.
"Today, the Iranian regime can decide on one of two paths," Rice said at the press conference. "Given the benefits of this positive path for the Iranian people, regional security, and the nuclear nonproliferation regime, we urge Iran to make this choice for peace -- to abandon its ambition for nuclear weapons."
Under the joint offer the U.S. is preparing with the EU-3 countries (Britain, France, and Germany), Iran will be offered assistance in building a light water nuclear reactor for civilian use and possible future trade benefits. Yet the offer stresses the need for Iran to first stop all enrichment and reprocessing activity in a way that can be verified by international monitors.
Secretary Rice will meet with her counterparts from the EU-3 countries, as well as from Russia and China, on Thursday in Vienna to discuss the exact terms of the proposals. Sources in Washington said Wednesday that there is still not a full agreement on the package of benefits that Teheran will be offered or on the sanctions it will be threatened with in case it does not agree to stop enrichment. At this point, there is an agreement, according to the sources, on the need for sanctions which will not include limitations on oil and gas trade with Iran.
The declaration on possible direct negotiations with Iran was meant primarily to ensure Russia and China's support for a U.N. Security Council resolution which will enable imposing sanctions against Iran. Secretary Rice would not confirm that there is a Russian-Chinese agreement on the whole package, but noted that the offer put forth by the U.S. removes "the last excuse" for not complying with the international community's demands. Administration sources were quoted in the U.S. press as saying that Moscow and Beijing already agree that there should be no direct talks with Iran before it agrees to stop its nuclear enrichment activity.
President George Bush, who talked in the recent days with leaders of Russia, Britain, France, and Germany, said that the American decision to offer direct negotiations with Iran is a part of the "robust diplomacy" the U.S. is leading in an effort to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis in a diplomatic way. "Our message to the Iranians is that one -- you won't have a weapon and two -- that you must verifiably suspend any program, in which point we will come to the negotiating table to work on a way forward," Bush said at a joint photo opportunity with Rwanda president Paul Kagame at the White House.
The administration stressed Wednesday that the negotiations offer does not extend to issues beyond the nuclear crisis and that the U.S. still has other issues with Iran, including its support of terrorism in the Palestinian territories and its involvement in Iran. "This is not a grand bargain," Rice said, adding that the negotiations offered are not intended to establish full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran.
Both countries cut their diplomatic ties after U.S. embassy workers in Teheran were taken hostage in 1979. Since then there were partial and sporadic ties between Washington and Teheran and most of them were not successful. The Bush administration engaged with Iran before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in order to ensure that Teheran does not play a negative role in the American military effort.
The Iranian threat
U.S. IRAN PROPOSAL DOESN'T SURPRISE ISRAEL
By Herb Keinon
May 31, 2006
[PHOTO CAPTION: The main building of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant in Bushehr, southwest of Tehran.]
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's dramatic announcement that the U.S. was willing to hold direct talks with Iran if it stopped enriching uranium was not a complete surprise in Jerusalem, where the possibility of such a move has been discussed at various levels for some time.
The idea was reportedly discussed during Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's recent trip to Washington, and even beforehand at the preparatory talks that led up to that meeting.
U.S. President George W. Bush phoned Olmert Wednesday evening after the announcement to discuss the matter, and -- according to the Prime Minister's Office -- the two leaders agreed to stay in contact on the issue.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice phoned Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni before the press conference to brief her on what the U.S. intended to do.
Livni issued a statement after the announcement saying that Israel and the U.S. were "in agreement" regarding the Iranian nuclear threat, and that this was clear and apparent during Olmert's recent visit to the U.S.
Livni said that Israel appreciated what the U.S. was doing on this matter, and said the U.S. "continues to lead the international coalition and is taking all the necessary steps to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities."
"Israel supports the U.S. efforts in this matter," she said.
One source with close ties to the State Department said earlier this week it was just a matter of time before the U.S. started to negotiate with Iran.
The source said that although he could not say where the negotiations might lead, they were a necessary precondition to any possible future use of force. Bush had to show his European allies, as well as his domestic audience, that he was willing to exhaust all diplomatic efforts to try and solve the problem, before gaining support for sanctions or possibly resorting to military measures.