VIENNA, Austria – Britain favors drawing the United States into new talks with Iran over Tehran's nuclear program and may float such a plan Monday at a high-level diplomatic meeting outside the U.N. Security Council, a U.N. diplomat said.
With Washington now ready to meet with Iran over Iraq, any such plan put forward by a staunch Washington ally may offer the Americans a face-saving way to talk to Tehran about its nuclear program after years of refusing direct contacts on the issue.
The diplomat, who demanded anonymity in exchange for divulging the confidential strategy, said Saturday that the British proposal would have the five permanent U.N. Security Council members sit at the same table with the Iranians, along with Germany.
The British plan to make the proposal at a meeting of senior government officials from France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China and the United States, the diplomat told The Associated Press.
They would offer Tehran a new but unspecified package of incentives in exchange for a negotiated settlement on Iranian plans for uranium enrichment, the diplomat said.
But talks would only be offered if there was no progress among the five permanent Security Council members in agreeing on a strategy on Iran, and if Tehran remain uncooperative, he said. Any such negotiations would then begin by the early summer, he added.
Similar negotiations between Iran and France, Germany and Britain collapsed in August after Tehran rejected an incentives package offered in return for a permanent end to uranium enrichment, which it voluntarily suspended in 2004 under a deal with the Europeans.
Its subsequent moves to develop full-blown enrichment capabilities led the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation board to ask for Security Council involvement earlier this year. Uranium enrichment can create both fuel and the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
The diplomat is well informed about international efforts to pressure Iran to make concessions on a nuclear program. While not discounting it, two other U.N. diplomats who have been following the issue but less directly said they were unaware of such a British plan.
Any formal push by the British of such a plan is significant because they have been among the most stalwart backers of Washington until recently in calling for strong pressure to be brought to bear on Tehran, including the possibility of Security Council sanctions.
If raised by Britain, the plan would put the Americans under some pressure to accept.
It is bound to be supported by Russia and China, which oppose any Security Council action beyond an appeal to Tehran to cooperate with the Vienna-based IAEA probe of its nuclear activities and to re-impose a freeze on uranium enrichment.
Germany too, would be expected to back such negotiations, leaving the Americans and French potentially isolated.
Still, such a British proposal might be welcomed by more moderate U.S. administration officials as a way of engaging Iran directly without losing face.
One of the diplomats suggested that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was prepared to consider such talks while senior Pentagon and U.S. National Security Council officials were opposed.
Russia and China are blocking a U.S.-led push for a firmly worded Security Council statement that would increase pressure on Tehran and are even more strongly opposed to what would be the next logical step — a binding resolution demanding Iran to comply.
A key sticking point for Russia is a proposal asking IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei to deliver a progress report in two weeks on Iran's progress toward clearing up suspicions about its nuclear program. Russia and China say two weeks is far too soon and are said to be pushing for ElBaradei to report not to the council but to his own agency.
"Let's just imagine that we adopt it and today we issued that statement — then what happens after two weeks?" Russia's U.N. ambassador Andrey Denisov said Friday.
With talks stalled in the Security Council, moderate U.S. administration officials might be ready to contemplate direct multilateral talks with Tehran along the lines of the six-nation talks with North Korea designed to get it to give up its nuclear arms aspirations.
The concept of U.S. involvement in such talks has suddenly become less unthinkable with a decision by the U.S. administration earlier this week to talk to Iranian officials about Iraq after a nearly three-decade break in diplomatic ties between the two countries. U.S. officials have emphasized those talks would not touch on the nuclear issue.
Russia and China, which are allies of Iran, have said in the past that tough council action could spark an Iranian withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.