Iran Welcomes Talks, Rebuffs U.S. Terms
Nation Refuses to Negotiate 'Natural Nuclear Rights'

(Gold9472: As we knew they would. As the Bush Administration knew they would. They counted on it.)

By Michael Fletcher, Glenn Kessler and Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 1, 2006; 9:06 AM

The Bush administration offered for the first time yesterday to join European talks with Iran over its nuclear program, but only if the Iranian government suspends efforts to enrich uranium and reprocess spent nuclear fuel, which the administration calls part of a covert attempt to make bombs.

Iran this morning issued a wary but apparently less than final reply to the Bush administration's offer. "Iran welcomes dialogue under just conditions but won't give up our rights," Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said, in remarks quoted by Iranian state television. "We won't negotiate about the Iranian nation's natural nuclear rights but we are prepared, within a defined, just framework and without any discrimination, to hold dialogue about common concerns."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the U.S. policy shift at a State Department news conference, warning that if the Iranian government chooses not to negotiate and to continue pursuing its nuclear ambitions, "it will incur only great costs."

"We urge Iran to make this choice for peace, to abandon its ambition for nuclear weapons," Rice said. Refusing to do so, she added, "will lead to international isolation and progressively stronger political and economic sanctions."

A senior administration official said there is substantial agreement from Russia and China -- two nations that have resisted sanctions against Iran -- on an escalating series of U.N. penalties that would be imposed if Iran does not comply. He said negotiators are expected to finalize a package that includes potential sanctions for noncompliance, as well as benefits if Iran accepts a deal being crafted by several nations during a meeting in Vienna today. Rice left for the meeting shortly after her announcement.

The Bush administration previously refused to engage in direct talks with Iran on its nuclear program, preferring to let three European Union nations -- Britain, France and Germany, known as the E.U.-3 -- conduct negotiations. But Germany lately has increasingly urged Washington to deal with Tehran directly, as have a growing roster of foreign policy experts and at least two U.S. senators.

"I thought it was important for the United States to take the lead, along with our partners, and that's what you're seeing," President Bush told reporters. "You're seeing robust diplomacy. I believe this problem can be solved diplomatically, and I'm going to give it every effort to do so."

John R. Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called Javad Zarif, his Iranian counterpart, before Rice's announcement to inform him of the administration's willingness to engage in direct talks. Meanwhile, Rice's remarks were also given to the Swiss ambassador to the United States for transmission to Iran.

The Iranian statement reflected the two strains that have guided Iran's nuclear diplomacy in recent weeks: A firm assertion that as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the country has a right to develop peaceful nuclear power. But also an appetite to speak directly with Washington, after 27 years of hostile official silence, in hopes of avoiding punishment by the UN Security Council and perhaps eventually restore diplomatic relations.

In remarks to reporters this morning at a news conference in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki gave the impression of dismissing Wednesday's offer from Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice as "no new words."

But it was unclear whether the remarks, quoted by the state news agency IRNA, were a framed response or the reflexive reaction of a hardline conservative. Mottaki's state television statement, for instance, appeared to represent an effort to keep the overture alive. One diplomat said the reference to "just conditions" could be read as a softening of Iran's official line, which has always demanded that any negotiations begin with no conditions at all.

"It sounds like an opening," said the European diplomat resident in Tehran. "Before they've always said 'no conditions,' so this might mean something."

In any event, few observers of Iran's government took Mottaki's remarks as the final word. Under Iran's theocratic system, the cabinet of the elected president counts for less than state organs under the direct control of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who as Supreme Leader of the Revolution holds ultimate power. Observers awaited word from Ali Larijani, a Khamenei favorite who as chair of the National Security Council has led Iran's negotiating team. A response may also come through by appointed clerics at Friday Prayers; the language of the sermons is routinely dictated by Khamenei's office.

In extending the offer to join Britain, Germany and France in direct negotiations with Tehran, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice on Wednesday said Washington would proceed only if Iran resumed a suspension of its nuclear program, calling that necessary to answer concerns that the program may be a front for developing nuclear weapons.

But Rice's statement also offered an assurance that Iranian officials have made their central demand. "The Iranian people believe they have a right to civil nuclear energy," she said. "We acknowledge that right."

In extending the offer to enter the nuclear talks, Rice made it clear that the United States would not contemplate restoring diplomatic relations with Iran, which were severed during the 1979 hostage crisis, until the regime made changes, including renouncing its support of terrorist groups.

Senior Chinese and Russian officials welcomed the U.S. offer of direct talks, saying it showed an increased willingness to pursue diplomatic means to resolve the budding nuclear crisis. Still, Wang Guangya, China's ambassador to the United Nations, said the United States should provide Iran with security assurances and drop its demand that Iran cease uranium enrichment before such talks could begin.

"I think it in a way proves that the U.S. is more serious about the negotiations than about other options, but I do hope that this offer could be less conditional," Wang told reporters.

Wang said China may be prepared to take a tougher line with Iran if the United States and Europe offer more "attractive carrots" to the Iranians, including security assurances, and a pledge to allow Tehran to pursue a peaceful nuclear energy program, including a small research-and-development project on uranium enrichment.

The United States and key European allies oppose such a project, saying it would provide Tehran with the technical know-how to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon. Estimates vary, but some experts think Iran could master the expertise needed to produce a nuclear weapon by the end of the year, though U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that it would take Tehran a decade to build a bomb.

The shift in U.S. policy came after mounting calls for a dialogue with Iran from foreign policy experts and lawmakers, notably former secretaries of state Henry A. Kissinger and Madeleine K. Albright, and Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.). The pressure increased in early May when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wrote a rambling 18-page letter that was dismissed by Bush but was seen in much of the world as an invitation for talks with the United States. The letter was followed by back-channel communications making it clear that the Iranians were seeking direct talks.

Administration officials, meanwhile, said they began seriously discussing a plan to enter talks with Iran two months ago. Rice, on her way to New York in early May for what turned out to be a contentious meeting on the Iran issue, sketched an outline of a plan, a senior State Department official said.

Later, a small group -- including officials from the State Department, the White House and the Defense Department -- was assembled to flesh out her ideas. Bush discussed them with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during his visit to Washington last week, and Bush followed that up with phone calls to the leaders of France, Germany and Russia on Tuesday to ensure that they were on board. Rice, meanwhile, discussed the idea with her Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, before Bush gave final approval to the offer.

Rice and other Bush administration officials said the offer of direct negotiations would eliminate the argument that the U.S. refusal to deal directly with Iran on the nuclear issue was the impediment to resolving the impasse.

"This is the last excuse in some sense," she said. "There have been those who have said, 'Well, if only the negotiations had the potential for the United States to be a part of them, perhaps then Iran would respond.' So now we have a pretty clear path."

Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations and correspondent Karl Vick in Tehran contributed to this report.