US, in about-turn, to send envoy to Iran talks

In a shift in policy, the United States will send an envoy to talks this weekend between Iran and major powers over Tehran’s nuclear programme, a senior US official said on Tuesday.

US Under Secretary of State William Burns will join European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and envoys from China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany in a meeting with Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Geneva on Saturday, the official said.

They will discuss Iran’s response to an offer made by world powers last month to give up sensitive nuclear work that the West believes is aimed at building an atomic bomb and Tehran says is for peaceful power-generation purposes.

The United States had said previously it would not be involved in any pre-negotiations with Tehran unless it gave up uranium enrichment.

The US official made clear the ground rules were that Burns would not act as a negotiator and not meet separately with Jalili but would put forward the White House position that Iran must give up enrichment for any real talks to start.

”Bill Burns will reiterate our terms for negotiation remain the same,” the official, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

”This will be a one-time participation designed to show unity [among major powers] and the message will be very clear.”

The US presence at the meeting did not indicate a restoration of full-blown diplomatic ties, the official said.

Tehran and Washington cut diplomatic ties shortly after the Iranian revolution of 1979. But the United States has held several rounds of talks over the past year with Iran over what it sees as Tehran’s meddling in Iraq.

Raised tensions
In June, Solana presented Tehran with a package of economic and other incentives proposed by world powers to coax Iran to halt sensitive nuclear work.

Iran, the world’s fourth largest oil producer, denies it wants to build nuclear weapons and says its nuclear programme is designed to make electricity to increase its output of oil and natural gas.

Iran has repeatedly refused to suspend uranium enrichment, as demanded by the six powers before formal negotiations can begin on the offer.

Tension increased last week after Iran test-fired missiles in the Gulf and the United States reminded Tehran that it was ready to defend its allies. Fears of conflict helped to push oil prices to new record highs.

US officials said Washington also decided to join the talks as it wanted to take advantage of what appeared to be ”debate” within Iran’s establishment over the nuclear offer and to show the United States wanted to resolve the impasse.

In addition, Washington believed that three rounds of UN sanctions against Iran, as well as bilateral sanctions by the United State and EU nations, were starting to bite and that now was the time to take advantage of that.

There has been opposition within the Bush administration over whether to deal directly with Iran. President George Bush has made clear all options remain on the table, including military action.

But the US official said any military action was a ”last resort”, adding the goal was to exhaust all diplomatic measures and the meeting with Jalili was part of that approach.

While officials insist the talks are not part of a new diplomatic relationship with Tehran, there have been overtures toward Iran in recent weeks.

The United States is looking at opening up a US interests section in Tehran, which would allow for diplomatic contact, while falling short of diplomatic ties. Currently, Switzerland acts as a go-between between the United States and Iran. – Reuters

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