President Bush's decision to send a senior U.S. envoy to Europe for the first face-to-face talks with Iran on its nuclear program is seen as a step away from military confrontation with Tehran, and a possible move toward diplomatic resolution.
The White House confirmed Wednesday that Bush has authorized Undersecretary of State William Burns, the department's No. 3 official, to attend talks Saturday in Geneva between European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
The administration had refused nuclear talks with Iran until it suspended its enrichment of uranium that could be used to build nuclear warheads.
Burns will have no authority to negotiate, officials said, and it remains unclear whether Iran is ready to respond positively to an enhanced offer that Solana presented last month on behalf of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.S.
Still, “It sends a strong signal to the world and a strong signal to the Iranian government that the United States is committed to diplomacy,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
Diplomats in Vienna, home of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and in Washington doubt Iran will engage in real bargaining until Bush leaves office. Seething distrust and tensions punctuate the U.S.-Iran relationship – fueled by the nuclear dispute; competing U.S. and Iranian aims in Iraq; Iran's backing of alleged terror groups and other issues.
Jalili is expected to present Solana on Saturday with Iran's formal response to the six-nation proposal, which includes a medley of political, economic and security rewards for Iran in return for suspending uranium enrichment and opening negotiations on its nuclear program.
Iran's leaders have repeatedly rejected that condition – which is also in three U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions – insisting Iran has the right under international law to make nuclear fuel for civilian power plants. They deny the program they hid from U.N. inspectors for 18 years is for bombs.
Over the last few weeks, Iranian officials have sent mixed signals about their willingness to compromise.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters in New York this month that Tehran is “seriously” examining the proposal. But Mottaki, in a July 4 letter to the six powers, reportedly made no mention of the uranium enrichment demand.
Some experts believe Tehran wants to resolve the nuclear standoff as part of a wider accord that addresses all outstanding differences with the United States, lifts sanctions and restores diplomatic ties broken since shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution. The Bush administration refused to consider such a “grand bargain” when Tehran proposed it in 2003.
But nuclear enrichment “has now become a very powerful symbol” of Iranian national pride that is being used by the regime to tamp down growing public discontent over rampant inflation and unemployment, the diplomat said.