VIENNA, Austria – A senior U.S. envoy will sit eye-to-eye for the first time with a top Iranian nuclear negotiator Saturday, a sharp reversal in U.S. policy that aims to entice Tehran into ending activities that could be used to make atomic arms.
The move to send Undersecretary of State William Burns to the Geneva nuclear talks has raised the hackles of Washington hardliners who say it signals U.S. weakness. But supporters say because both Tehran and the United States want to ease tensions, the move could breathe life into deadlocked nuclear talks.
Initially, they say, the U.S and its allies could agree to stop pushing for new U.N sanctions if Tehran stops expanding its uranium enrichment capacities — setting the stage for fuller negotiations and what the West hopes will be agreement from Tehran to dismantle its enrichment program.
Uranium enrichment can produce both reactor fuel and the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
Iran says it has a right to enrich for peaceful uses and continues expanding its program despite three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions sparked by concern that Iran's ultimate goal is to make weapons.
The Americans are part of a six-nation effort — the permanent Security Council members plus Germany — trying to encourage Iran to suspend its nuclear efforts in exchange for economic and political incentives.
The venue of Saturday's talks in Geneva reflects the potential significance of the meeting.
The Hotel de Ville, or city hall, stands at the top of Geneva's Old Town. Its neoclassical rooms have hosted important international negotiations since 1872, when an arbitration tribunal ordered Britain to pay the United States US$15.5 million in Civil War damages. It was also the first home of the League of Nations, predecessor of today's United Nations.
The all-day talks, formally led by EU envoy Javier Solana and Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili, start at 11 a.m. (0900 GMT).
American officials have insisted that Burns' presence will be a "one-time event" and he will listen to the Iranians but will not be negotiating.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the decision to send Burns proved the U.S. is committed to diplomacy and is "firmly behind and unified with our allies."
Policy hawks disagree. John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and undersecretary of state in charge of Tehran's nuclear file, said the move represents a "U-turn" in U.S. policy.
"To the Iranians, it will send a sign of the political weakness of a (U.S.) administration in its last days and desperate for a deal," he told The Associated Press.
The United States and its five partners (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) remain committed to getting a full halt to Iranian enrichment. Still, Burns' decision to attend the Geneva talks shows that Washington may accept something less than full suspension, at least as a first step, to achieve its ultimate goal under a "freeze-for-freeze" proposal.
"Freeze-for-freeze" envisions a six-week commitment from both sides. Preliminary talks meant to lead to formal nuclear negotiations would start, Iran could continue enrichment but only at its present level, and the U.S. and its allies would stop pushing for new U.N. sanctions.
If this results in the start of formal talks, the Iranians would stop all enrichment, at least for the duration of the negotiations. Those talks, in turn, are meant to secure Tehran's commitment for an indefinite ban on enrichment.
"The Iranians have always wanted the Americans at the table," and Burns' presence is meant to help them warm to the "freeze-for-freeze" idea, said a senior European official, who demanded anonymity in exchange for divulging confidential information.
If that happened, the U.S. presence at the negotiating table would end and resume only if "freze-for-freeze" talks resulted in an Iranian agreement to stop all enrichment activity for a certain period in exhange for incentives, the official said.
Burns' presence also may reflect the desire by both sides to ease tensions in the final months of U.S. President George W. Bush's term.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, speaking in Ankara on Friday, said the talks could also result in agreements to open a U.S. interest-protection bureau in Iran and have direct flights between the two nations.
U.S. interests in Iran are now represented by the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.
Iran and the United States broke off diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Official contacts between the two countries are extremely rare.
If Iranians fail to seize the chance at Geneva, the White House will have some tough decisions to make, including whether it should pull out of the six-nation group trying to entice Iran into negotiations.
That would surely cripple the diplomatic effort to engage Tehran on the nuclear front — and increase fears of a U.S. military option, something the Bush administration has refused to rule out.
Tensions over Iran's nuclear activities began five years ago, with revelations that it had hidden enrichment activities for nearly two decades. Fears grew after the IAEA accummulated evidence that appeared to show Iranian attempts to make nuclear weapons. A U.S. intelligence estimate last year says Iran tried to make weapons at least until 2003 — charges Tehran vehemently denies.
Iran suspended enrichment that year but resumed in 2005 after rejecting EU incentives for a long-term enrichment stop. The Geneva talks are based on a revamped version of the 2005 incentive package.