In policy reversal, US envoy to meet Iran’s nuclear negotiator


Washington : The United States announced Wednesday a senior US diplomat would attend international nuclear talks with Iran, in the highest-ranking meeting between the two foes in three decades.

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In a major policy shift, the White House and State Department said Under Secretary of State William Burns would attend the Saturday talks with Iran on a “one-time” mission to underline US conditions for ending the atomic stalemate. In Tehran, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Iran was ready for negotiations over the nuclear crisis but warned it would not step over any “red lines” in the search for a deal.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Burns would go to Geneva “to listen” to Tehran’s reply to a new incentives offer for freezing uranium enrichment — a program the West fears conceals a drive for nuclear weapons. “We are not there to negotiate,” she stressed. Updated from one in 2006, the offer was submitted to Iran last month on behalf of the P5 plus one grouping Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — and Germany.

Burns’s presence at the talks between European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Tehran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili will “clarify the consequences” — more sanctions — if Iran rejects the package, she said. “I hope very much we will get constructive, positive answers to the documents that we sent to them,” Solana said in Berlin.

European diplomats say Solana is proposing to Tehran that world powers would refrain from new sanctions provided Iran did not start operating any additional centrifuges to enrich uranium. And Perino said Burns may restate US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s offer to “meet with her (Iranian) counterpart anytime, anywhere, to move forward on negotiations if they would halt uranium enrichment.”

The mission to Geneva by the number-three US diplomat comes with time fast running out for a solution before US President George W. Bush’s term ends in January 2009. Citing a “new tactic” but no change in substance, Rice’s spokesman Sean McCormack said Washington decided to send Burns to Geneva to try to shape the outcome of a new “debate” in Iran partly prompted by the offer.

He said it amounted to sending a “signal” to “reasonables” who might “start to win some of the arguments within the Iranian political system” and eventually accept the incentives package. It offers Iran benefits in nuclear energy, trade, finance, agriculture and high technology if it halts enrichment — in sharp contrast to international sanctions which McCormack says have hurt the Iranian economy and business.

Former State Department official Suzanne Maloney told AFP that the US diplomatic move marks “a departure” from earlier Bush policy “because it effectively endorses the idea of talks without preconditions.” However, the Brookings Institution’s Iran expert said there appeared to be too many “ludicrous” restrictions on Burns for any results to be achieved.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran and until now has refused to even participate in preliminary discussions with Iranian officials unless Tehran first suspends its nuclear enrichment activities. Iran has repeatedly refused to heed UN demands to suspend uranium enrichment, insisting that its activities are exclusively aimed at energy production. “No power can deprive Iran of nuclear technology,” state television quoted supreme leader Khamenei as saying. “Iran has decided to take part in negotiations but it will not accept any threat.

“Our red lines are clear and if the other parties respect the Iranian people, the dignity of the Islamic republic and these red lines, our officials will negotiate as long as no one makes any threats against Iran,” he said.

Iran last week intensified tensions in the nuclear standoff by staging two days of missile tests, which included the firing of a missile that it says can reach Israel. McCormack neither confirmed nor denied that Israel was briefed on the US diplomatic move before it was announced, saying only that Washington “informed a number of our diplomatic partners” of it.

Perino said the Burns trip is a “one-time US participation,” but did not close the door to other meetings. “It’s hard to predict the future,” she added. US State Department officials added that Burns would leave Washington on Wednesday night for consultations in Europe before the meeting in Geneva.