U.S. to sit at table with Iran

President Bush has authorized the most significant U.S. diplomatic contact with Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, sending the State Department's third-ranking official to Geneva for a meeting this weekend on Iran's nuclear program, administration officials said Tuesday.

The decision appeared to bend, if not exactly break, the administration's insistence that it would not negotiate with Iran over its nuclear programs unless it first suspended uranium enrichment, as demanded by three resolutions of the U.N. Security Council.

Still, after months of accusations and counteraccusations between the U.S. and Iran, the meeting raised the prospect of an intensified diplomatic push to resolve concerns over nuclear activity, not unlike the lengthy, painstaking talks that resulted in a deal last month with North Korea.

William Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, will attend a meeting Saturday with the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and Iran's nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of an official announcement today.

At the meeting, Jalili is expected to present Iran's formal response to economic and diplomatic incentives that Germany and the Security Council's five permanent members, Russia, China, France, Britain and the United States, presented in June. Representatives from those countries will attend.

The U.S. had no representative at the June meeting.

The package, which revived an earlier European offer to provide civilian nuclear assistance and increased trade, met at first with official disdain in Iran but has since prompted conflicting signals among senior Iranian officials. That led the administration to conclude there could be a better chance of a diplomatic resolution than some Iranian declarations and a battery of missile tests last week suggested.

Bush approved the contact “to press the advantage,” a second official said. The officials stressed that Burns' participation was a one-time decision, that he would not meet one-on-one with Jalili and that he would reiterate the administration's demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment.

The U.S., along with some other countries, contends that the enrichment activity is part of an effort to build nuclear weapons, which Iran denies.

Clifford Kupchan of the Eurasia Group, a consultancy in Washington, called the meeting, even with strict limits, “a much-needed and an extremely welcome correction” in the Bush administration's policy.

He said that there is now at least “a perception of opportunity” that the international confrontation over Iran could be resolved without war.

Kupchan said the meeting will be the highest-level contact for Iran with the U.S. since the revolution and that, more important, it would deal with the fundamental dispute between Iran and the international community.

“Disclaimers notwithstanding,” he added, “the precondition that Iran must suspend before the U.S. will talk about the nuclear issue will by every standard have been dropped.”

After nearly three decades of isolation and hostility, U.S. and Iranian ambassadors have met to discuss security matters in Iraq. Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, attended a regional conference in Egypt, sitting in the same room but not meeting.

The administration has repeatedly said Rice was prepared to hold talks with Iran anywhere on any subject, provided that the country first stop enrichment.

The decision to allow the contact follows what Bush and other administration officials have described as a strategy to intensify sanctions and other punitive measures while offering Iran the prospect of easing its isolation.

“The message to the Iranian government is very clear: that there's a better way forward than isolation, and that is for you to verifiably suspend your enrichment program,” Bush said in Germany in June, rebutting reports he aimed to confront Iran militarily. “And the choice is theirs to make.”