/ 19 July 2008

Rice acknowledges US policy shift on Iran

The United States has shifted position on diplomacy with Iran by sending a senior envoy to Geneva to participate in nuclear talks with Iran’s top negotiator, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confirmed on Friday.

But she insisted that Tehran must suspend its enrichment and reprocessing of nuclear materials for substantive talks with Washington.

“The United States doesn’t have any permanent enemies,” Rice said in response to a reporter’s question on the unexpected move to send a diplomat to meet directly with Iran’s negotiator, Saeed Jalili, in Geneva on Saturday.

“And we hope this signal we’re sending, that we fully support the track that Iran could take for a better relationship with the international community, is one the United States stands fully behind.”

“We have been very clear that any country can change course,” Rice added.

“This decision to send Undersecretary [William] Burns is an affirmation of the policy that we have been pursuing with our European allies … for some time now.”

Rice called the move “a strong signal to the entire world that we have been very serious about this diplomacy and we will remain very serious about this diplomacy”.

Rice pointed out that she had endorsed the proposal from the so-called P5 plus one — the United States, France, Britain, China, Russia and Germany — on incentives to advance talks with Iran on halting its nuclear programme.

She called sending Burns to Geneva to meet with Jalili and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana the “book end” to that process.

“But it should be very clear to everyone the United States has a condition for the beginning of negotiations with Iran, and that condition remains the verifiable suspension of Iran’s enrichment and reprocessing activities,” Rice said.

Asked in an interview with CNN, excerpts of which were aired on Friday, whether sending Burns to Geneva was a major policy change, Rice answered:

“I acknowledge that what we’ve done is to make a step that we think demonstrates to everyone our seriousness about this process.

“But what has not changed is that the United States is determined to have negotiations only when Iran has suspended its enrichment and reprocessing. That’s when the United States can join.”

Asked if Saturday’s meeting is a one-shot deal, Rice replied, “This is.”

“We have one chance to receive the Iranian response. I transmitted the proposal. [Burns] will receive the response,” she told CNN.

“He will listen, and if Iran is ready to suspend, then the United States will be there.”

In Tehran, Jalili on Friday expressed optimism that weekend talks would be constructive, provided Washington came with the right approach.

“What is important for us is with what approach they come to the talks. If it is with a constructive approach, and that they refrain from past mistakes, then for sure we will have constructive talks,” he was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency before leaving Tehran for Geneva.

Washington has long said it will not negotiate with Iran until it first suspends uranium enrichment, and insisted on Wednesday that Burns was traveling to Geneva to listen to Iran’s response and not negotiate.

Nonetheless, it will be the first time that the US, which severed relations with Iran in 1980 after the Islamic revolution, will be present in the negotiations aimed at persuading Tehran to freeze uranium enrichment.

Western countries suspect that Iran is secretly trying to develop the atomic bomb and the United Nations has slapped several sets of sanctions on Tehran over its refusal to halt enrichment.

Iran vehemently denies seeking nuclear weapons, insisting that its programme is designed to provide energy for its growing population for the time when its reserves of fossil fuels run out. — AFP