U.S. diplomat says Europeans free to talk to Iran without U.S.


Tuesday, September 19th 2006, 9:34 pm
By: News On 6


NEW YORK (AP) _ The United States tried Tuesday to salvage its plan to punish Iran with sanctions if it won't back down in a nuclear standoff with the West, even as President Bush told Iranians he hopes that one day ``America and Iran can be good friends.''

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice convened nations that have offered Iran a bargain to head off what the United States and others fear is a drive to build a bomb. The United States had hoped to use the gathering to move decisively toward political and economic sanctions on Iran now that it has missed a U.N. deadline to shelve disputed nuclear activities, but cold feet among allies this month has made that possibility remote.

Rice warned that the world will have a credibility problem if it does not act. She also acknowledged that talks are already under way between the European Union and Tehran without preconditions.

That is a concession for the United States, which has led a drive to force Iran to choose between looming U.N. sanctions or talks that could reward it for scaling back its nuclear program.

``Those talks are going on now,'' Rice said on the CBS ``Early Show,'' referring to discussions between the European Union's foreign policy chief and Iran's nuclear negotiator. ``But we are still pursuing the path of sanctions should Iran not follow the U.N. Security Council resolution'' demanding a temporary end to its uranium enrichment program. The deadline had been set for Aug. 31.

Bush and Iran's unpredictable hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, addressed the United Nations on the same day, and the White House tried to make sure the two did not cross paths.

``Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions,'' Bush told the annual U.N. opening session. He added a direct appeal to the Iranian people, telling them to look past what their leaders say about the United States.

For his part, Ahmadinejad told the U.N. General Assembly that Iran's nuclear activities were ``transparent, peaceful and under the watchful eye'' of U.N. inspectors. He accused the U.S. and Britain of abusing the U.N. Security Council to achieve their own ends, and he also criticized the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

The Bush administration saw the diplomatic ground shift beneath it this month as Iran maneuvered to avoid sanctions that even close U.S. allies such as France were never keen to impose.

Two members of the coalition, France and Russia, cast doubt on the idea of sanctions over the past week, and Rice and her aides have been lowering expectations for action this week.

French President Jacques Chirac proposed a compromise on Monday. The world would suspend the threat of sanctions, he suggested, if Tehran agreed to halt uranium enrichment and return to negotiations.

After a meeting with Bush on Tuesday, however, Chirac said twice that the two leaders see ``eye to eye'' on Iran. Bush said he and Chirac ``share the same objective and we're going to continue to strategize together.''

Interviewed on morning news shows Tuesday, Rice stressed that the United States will not join any negotiations until Iran has at least temporarily stopped its accelerated uranium program.

``I would meet anywhere with my counterpart at any time,'' once Iran has met that precondition, Rice said on ABC's ``Good Morning America.''

Enriched uranium can be used to make nuclear energy, as Iran claims it wants to do. It can also fuel nuclear weapons, as the United States claims Iran intends.

If the separate European-Iranian talks ``can get us to a suspension, that would be terrific,'' Rice said on CBS.

Any face-to-face discussions between Iran and the United States would be the most significant warming of relations in nearly three decades of estrangement.

The United States has had extensive unilateral economic sanctions against Iran since shortly after the 1979 revolution and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Although the U.S. remains Iran's main adversary because of America's military, political, cultural and economic dominance, Washington has little economic leverage against Tehran on its own. The U.S. needs Europe, at least, to impose any meaningful economic penalty on Iran, but tough sanctions on the oil exporter would hurt America's international partners as well as Iran.

The prospect of U.S.-Iran talks was meant to be a powerful lure for Iran, but Rice also dangled the offer of talks earlier this year as a means to shore up a shaky international coalition against Iran.

It worked, at least for awhile. This summer, world powers signed on to the principle that Iran would face at least mild initial sanctions if it blew the August deadline.

Iran responded by hinting that it might be willing to shelve uranium enrichment, without ever saying so directly. That was enough to sow new division in the U.S.-build coalition, with the likely result that sanctions are either a dead letter or a long way off.