State Dept. official will join nuclear talks with Iran envoy

Times Staff Writer

In a break with long-standing policy, a top State Department official will join representatives of five allied powers this weekend in a meeting with a senior Iranian official to discuss Tehran’s disputed nuclear program.

Undersecretary of State William J. Burns, the No. 3 State Department official, will meet with Iranian envoy Saeed Jalili, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and other diplomats in Switzerland in a new effort by the allies to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for a package of political and economic inducements, a U.S. official said Tuesday.

The Bush administration has rarely permitted official contacts with the Iranians, believing that it has more diplomatic leverage with Tehran by trying to isolate the Islamic regime. In this case, however, the administration wants to underscore its desire to find a solution to a diplomatic impasse that continues despite years of effort, said the official, who declined to be identified because Burns’ trip had not yet been officially announced.


U.S. officials are emphasizing that Burns’ role will be limited in that he will be present, but will not negotiate. They say negotiations can begin only if the regime suspends uranium enrichment.

A formal announcement of the move is to come today.

The initiative reflects the Bush administration’s willingness to bend long-standing policies as it tries to eke out progress on its major foreign policy challenges in its final months in office. It comes at a time of growing concern about the threat of war over the impasse, even though U.S. officials and allies continue to emphasize that they are seeking a diplomatic solution.

The move is likely to scramble the foreign policy debate in the presidential election. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, has sided with the administration in arguing that the United States should sharply limit contacts with Tehran.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has said he is willing to begin high-level talks with the Iranians, provided certain conditions are met and it serves U.S. interests. Obama campaign aides have already said they favor the idea of a U.S. diplomat accompanying Solana at his meetings with Iranian officials.

The U.S. move is likely to be well received by America’s European allies, many of whom have been urging the United States for years to try to talk through its differences with the Iranians. One European official said Tuesday evening that the U.S. decision would be seen as a very welcome step in European capitals.

The meeting in Geneva is aimed at persuading the Iranians to answer whether they will accept the package of enhanced incentives presented last month by the United States, Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia.

Under a proposed deal, if Iran halted its nuclear program for six weeks, the U.S. and its allies would, for an equal period, stop adding to the sanctions they have gradually imposed on Tehran. Full negotiations would begin later.

The Iranians have sent mixed signals on the world powers’ offer, at first seeming to reject it but recently seeming divided and undecided.

The Bush administration has already been gradually moving away from its declared policy of shunning Iran.

U.S. and Iranian officials have met several times in Baghdad to discuss joint concerns about Iraq, although the meetings have accomplished little. Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki took part in a meeting in Egypt.

The six powers’ offer to Iran this time included a letter signed by Rice.