Iran's foreign minister today praised the attendance of a U.S. diplomat at this weekend's nuclear talks as "a new positive approach" and suggested that additional steps toward reconciliation could soon take place.
U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns is expected for the first time to join colleagues from other world powers when they meet in Geneva with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator on Saturday.
"The new negotiation process [and] the participation of a U.S. diplomat look positive from the outset, but we hope that is reflected in the talks," Manouchehr Mottaki told a joint news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan.
Meanwhile, Burns met today for about 20 minutes with International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed Elbaradei to discuss Iran's controversial atomic program. Burns did not speak to reporters afterward.
The U.S. has shifted from its confrontational policy of isolating Iran in favor of a diplomatic approach.
"It is, in fact, a strong signal to the entire world that we have been very serious about this diplomacy and we will remain very serious about this diplomacy," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today
The administration is also floating a proposal to open a diplomatic office in Tehran. U.S. diplomats would go to Iran for the first time in almost 30 years, since the countries broke relations after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
"I think there might be an agreement both on the issue of opening a U.S. interest protection bureau in Iran and on the issue of direct flights to Iran," Mottaki said.
This weekend will mark the first time that the U.S. has engaged Iran directly in talks aimed at halting Tehran's nuclear program.
It will also be one of the rare occasions in the past three decades where U.S. and Iranian diplomats sit down at the same table. The move is a turnaround for the Bush administration, which had said it would not talk with Iran until it suspended its nuclear ambitions.
Rice, however, made it clear that Burns will not be there to negotiate with Iran, only to urge Tehran to accept the international offer and suspend its nuclear program.
"The United States has a condition for the beginning of negotiations with Iran, and that condition remains the verifiable suspension of Iran's enrichment and reprocessing activities," Rice said.
Rice called Iran "difficult and dangerous" but quickly added that "any country can change course."
"The United States doesn't have any permanent enemies," Rice said. "And we hope that the signal that we're sending, that we fully support the track that Iran could take for a better relationship with the international community, is one that the United States stands fully behind."
The move is an about face for the Bush administration which resisted calls for direct engagement with Iran for two years, saying they would only do so if Iran suspends its nuclear program.
The decision to send Burns to the meeting in Geneva seems to contradict remarks made by Rice just last month
"We would be willing to meet with them, but not while they continue to inch closer to a nuclear weapon under the cover of talk," Rice said in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "So the real question is not: Why won't the Bush administration talk to Tehran? The real question is: Why won't Tehran talk to us?"
The United States has not had diplomatic ties with Iran since American diplomats and personnel were held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for 444 days, beginning in October 1979.
Since then, meetings between the two countries have been few and far between, usually occurring at large international gatherings like those at the United Nations.
The Bush administration has seldomly engaged Iran. It did so first after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, when Iran helped combat al Qaeda and its Taliban backers. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, has met with his Iranian counterpart in Baghdad in the past year to discuss American claims that Tehran is supporting violence against American soldiers in Iraq.
The U.S. and a group of world powers, known collectively as the P5+1, presented Iran with an offer two years ago: Give up your nuclear program and reap economic and diplomatic benefits, or continue enriching uranium, a key step in the march toward creating nuclear weapons, and face increased sanctions and pressure.
Iran has refused to suspend enrichment and, in return, the United Nations Security Council passed three rounds of sanctions to ratchet up the pressure on Iran. The United States and European countries have also taken steps on their own to isolate Iranian leaders and entities associated with the nuclear and missile programs.
The Bush administration has found itself in recent months under increasing pressure to exhaust all diplomatic efforts with Iran. As the prospect of armed conflict with Iran rose in the face of Israeli war games mimicking an attack on Iran and hawks in the Bush administration pushed for harsher responses to the perceived Iranian threat, the administration was eager to show it favored a diplomatic solution to the situation. It has maintained, however, that the option of military action against Iran will always remain on the table.
Throughout the presidential race, the Bush administration has been criticized by the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who has said that he would meet with Iranian officials if elected president.
Obama welcomed on Wednesday the move to send Burns to the meeting with Iran, saying, "Now that the United States is involved, it should stay involved with the full strength of our diplomacy. A united front with our friends and allies directly calling on the Iranians to stand down on their illicit nuclear program will maximize the international pressure we can bring to bear and will show the Iranian people that Iran's isolation is a function of its government's unwillingness to live up to its obligations."
In her speech last month, Rice seemed to reject Obama's proposal, saying, "This debate, though, should not be about whether we talk to Iran. That is not the real issue. Diplomacy is not a synonym for talking. True diplomacy means structuring a set of incentives and disincentives to produce change in behavior."
The administration has also come under increased pressure from Capitol Hill to engage Iran.
"I believe the United States should agree to directly engage Iran, first in the context of the P5 + 1, and ultimately country to country, just as we did in North Korea," Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last week.
The State Department today rejected any comparison between negotiations with Iran and those with North Korea as "apples and oranges."
The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, seconded Biden's proposal, saying an American seat at the table with Iran would underscore the "seriousness" of the offer being presented to Iran.
The Associated Press contributed to the reporting of this story.