U.S. to join group negotiating with Iran
The decision by the Obama administration on addressing nuclear concerns breaks with Bush policy, which had largely sought to isolate Tehran. The U.S. doesn't rule out bilateral talks.


By Paul Richter
April 9, 2009

Reporting from Washington -- The Obama administration said Wednesday that it will for the first time become a regular participant in group negotiations aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions, another signal of its eagerness for talks with the Islamic Republic.

In contrast with the Bush administration, which joined in the sessions only once, the Obama administration will participate with five other world powers and Iran "from now on," said Robert A. Wood, the chief State Department spokesman.

And he did not rule out one-on-one talks with Tehran, saying, "It's a little early to talk about that right now."

Along with Iran, the participants would be Germany and United Nations Security Council permanent members China, Russia, Britain, France and the United States.

The Bush administration, which generally sought to isolate Iran, sent the State Department's No. 3 official, William J. Burns, to the meetings only once, in July, and then only as an observer.

The six-member group of world powers is proposing a new meeting with Iran. Wood said the administration would send Burns as a full participant if Tehran agrees.

Obama last month offered a new start in relations with Iran, saying he wanted to end the enmity and mistrust of the last 30 years.

Last week, senior U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke approached an Iranian diplomat at an international conference in the Netherlands.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters Wednesday: "We believe that pursuing very careful engagement on a range of issues that affect our interests and the interests of the world makes sense."

Ellen Laipson, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, said the move was a "small, incremental step," but part of an effort to "send a fairly consistent message that we really mean it -- we really want to do business."

She said that Iranian officials have had a "slightly cranky response" to most of the U.S. overtures, but they "haven't said that the offers were totally unacceptable."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Wednesday in Tehran that his country would welcome talks with the United States "if it is based on honesty."

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Iranian government has not come close to a consensus and will need more time to debate the U.S. offer. He said Burns, a veteran diplomat, was well suited for the job and would carry a message of "mutual respect and humility."

The diplomatic group made an offer of political and economic incentives to the Iranians last year, but was rebuffed. If the seven nations do resume talks, they would begin with preliminary discussions about whether to have in-depth negotiations.

Some European officials have been advocating an approach called "freeze for freeze," under which the Iranians would agree to not expand their uranium enrichment, and the West would agree to not add additional diplomatic and economic sanctions, while the parties weighed broader negotiations.