WASHINGTON (AP) – While a top U.S. diplomat has no plans to meet separately with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, the mere presence of the Bush administration official at talks between the Iranian negotiator and representatives of other world powers will be a sharp break with past administration policy.
William Burns, America’s third highest-ranking diplomat, will attend talks with the Iranian envoy, Saeed Jalili, in Switzerland on Saturday aimed at persuading Iran to halt activities that could lead to the development of atomic weapons, a senior U.S. official told the Associated Press on Tuesday. It will be the first time such a high-ranking U.S. official has attended such talks.
Official contacts between Iran and the United States are extremely rare and although Washington is part of a six-nation effort to get Iran to stop enriching and reprocessing uranium, the administration has shunned contacts with Tehran on the matter.
The senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement of Burns’ plans expected on Wednesday, acknowledged a shift in the administration’s approach but stressed that Burns would not meet Jalili separately and would not negotiate with him. “This is a one-time event and he will be there to listen, not negotiate,” the official said. U.S. contact with Iran has recently been limited only to discussions about the security situation in Iraq, where Washington accuses Iran of supporting insurgents. The two countries have not had diplomatic relations since the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.
Saturday’s meeting comes at a time of acutely heightened tensions between the United States and Iran, particularly after Iranian missile tests last week prompted President George W. Bush’s top aides to warn that the United States would defend its friends and interests in the Middle East. The tensions with Iran spilled over into the U.S. presidential campaign.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Iran’s missile tests highlight the need for direct diplomacy as well as tougher threats of economic sanctions and strong incentives to persuade Tehran to change its behavior. John McCain, the Republican seeking the presidency, said the tests demonstrated a need for effective missile defense, including the defense system the U.S. plans with the Czech Republic and Poland.
The gathering in Geneva will be led by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who is seeking a definitive answer from the Iranians to an offer of incentives that the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany presented last month.
The package of incentives was accompanied by a letter from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the foreign ministers of the other five countries and sets out a scenario in which Iran would get a temporary reprieve from economic and financial sanctions in exchange for freezing its enrichment activities.
Preliminary negotiations over a permanent halt could then begin, although the United States would not join them until after Iran agrees to fully suspend uranium enrichment, which can produce the fuel needed to make nuclear bombs. Iran has responded to the offer through the European Union but has indicated it has no plans to stop enriching uranium the key demand. But there are hopes that Iran may refine its response at Saturday’s meeting.