The United States says it is prepared to join in talks on Iran's nuclear program, if Tehran halts all uranium-enrichment activity. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the policy shift in advance of big-power talks on the issue Thursday in Vienna.
The United States has agreed conditionally to take a direct role in talks with Iran in support of an international effort to persuade Tehran to halt nuclear activities U.S. officials believe are weapons-related.
The United States has had no diplomatic relations and few political contacts with Iran since 1979, and the offer to join the nuclear talks is a policy shift for the Bush administration, which has let European allies Britain, France and Germany take the lead on the issue.
Announcement of the move came from Secretary of State Rice at a news conference only hours before she was to leave for Vienna and a critical session of nuclear talks with foreign ministers of the other permanent UN Security Council member countries and Germany.
The major powers are working on a offer of incentives for Iran if it halts uranium enrichment and returns to nuclear talks with the EU-Three, or penalties starting with a Security Council resolution against Tehran and leading perhaps to wide-ranging sanctions.
Rice said the United States was offering to join the EU-Three at the negotiating table, provided Iran fully and verifiably suspended uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities, to bring new energy and added weight to the negotiating track.
She told reporters she hopes the U.S. move will draw a definitive response from Tehran and a choice of whether it wants to pursue nuclear weapons in defiance of the world community or alter its present course and cooperate in resolving the issue:
"It is time to know whether Iran is serious about negotiations or not. We cannot continue in a circumstance in which every few days, an Iranian official says, 'Well you know we are sort of interested in the Russian proposal, or maybe we are interested again in going back to the EU negotiations', but nothing happens. And so we think it is time now to have a clear choice and two very clear paths."
Rice cautioned that if the United States joined the nuclear talks, it is still in no position to talk about restoring diplomatic relations with Iran, given the many problem issues that would remain, including Tehran's support for terrorism and involvement in violence in Iraq. She dismissed a suggestion the U.S. offer confers legitimacy on the Tehran government:
"Nobody is confused about the nature of this regime. But the President made very clear that we are going to do everything we can to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear problem. And the only thing that is being provided legitimacy here is the international community's consensus that Iran must suspend its current enrichment and processing activities, return to serious negotiations, find a civil nuclear program that does not have proliferation risks associated with it through the fuel cycle, and negotiate in good faith."
The Secretary said there has been progress in negotiating the terms of the so-called 'carrots-and-sticks' package offer to Iran being negotiated by the major powers, but that some differences remain.
Russia and China have reportedly been resisting a binding Security Council resolution demanding Iranian compliance and threatening sanctions if it refused the incentives deal.