Reconsidering its hard line on Iran (search), the United States is weighing the idea of rewarding the Islamic republic if it gives up technology that can be used for nuclear arms, diplomats and U.S. officials said Tuesday.
The diplomats, who spoke to The Associated Press from Vienna and another European capital, said senior European negotiators directly answerable to their foreign ministers planned to go to Washington this week for discussions with top U.S. State Department officials on a common Iran strategy.
"Discussions are ongoing between the Americans and the Europeans on how to address the nuclear question in Iran," a diplomat said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi offered European governments assurances Tuesday in Tehran that his country would never produce nuclear bombs if Tehran's right to enrich uranium was recognized.
"The time has come for Europe to take a step forward and suggest that our legitimate right for complete use of nuclear energy is recognized (in return for) assurances that our program will not be diverted toward weapons," Kharrazi said.
The offer, which came about six weeks before Iran has to show the U.N. nuclear watchdog that it has ceased enrichment and all related activities, was brushed aside by a senior U.S. official in Washington.
However, the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Bush administration was prepared to consider with the Europeans a package of incentives.
The package of incentives will be discussed at a meeting Friday at the State Department by European envoys with Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton and either Secretary of State Colin Powell or Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage, a U.S. official said.
Incentives could include access to imported nuclear fuel, but the two U.S. officials said that while the administration was interested in proposing a package of incentives, none of its parts had received U.S. endorsement.
Cooperating with Europe on incentives to Iran would represent a shift in Bush administration strategy and could have significant implications in the presidential race. Democratic candidate John Kerry has criticized the administration for what he calls insufficient cooperation with allied governments in shaping U.S. foreign policy.
President Bush has responded that he works with allied governments whenever possible.
The European diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, emphasized that the talks were still at an initial stage. They also said the United States was holding on to its option of pushing for U.N. Security Council action against Iran if it is found in defiance of international demands to stop all activities related to uranium enrichment.
For more than a year, the United States has pushed other nations at board meetings of the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) to find Iran in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (search) and refer it to the Security Council, which could impose sanctions. But its attempts foundered due to resistance from other members of the 35-nation IAEA board of governors.
The new strategy, disclosed by the diplomats, appeared in part prompted by recognition that Washington could again fall short of support at the next board meeting in Vienna in November.
Uranium enrichment can be used to generate power or make nuclear warheads. The Americans insist the Iranians are hiding a secret weapons program — something Tehran denies.
The Americans have in the past said they welcomed attempts by France, Britain and Germany to get Iran to shelve plans to enrich in exchange for pledges to help Tehran develop its peaceful nuclear program.
But one of the diplomats said the Americans now are more actively involved in planning the package — which would offer incentives but also penalties should Iran remain defiant.
"I think they are speaking less about sanctions and how to move the process forward," said the diplomat, who is familiar with the talks.