WASHINGTON -- In an abrupt shift, the Bush administration announced yesterday that it would join direct talks with Iran but placed strict conditions on the offer in an effort to force to a climax international efforts aimed at limiting Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
After long resisting pressure to participate in negotiations with Iran, U.S. officials said they would take part in multinational talks if Tehran halts uranium enrichment and permits the resumption of surprise visits to its nuclear facilities by United Nations inspectors.
"Iran now faces a clear choice," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "This is the last excuse."
Iran called the offer "a propaganda move," and many U.S. and allied officials acknowledged that Tehran might reject the U.S. precondition for talks. U.S. officials hope that if Iran spurns the offer, world powers would unite to impose sanctions.
Rice said officials hope the U.S. initiative will "give new energy" to a European effort to develop a package of incentives and possible penalties to induce Iran to halt nuclear activities.
One key to the U.S. plan is agreement among the world's leading powers that they would punish Iran if the incentive package did not persuade it to change course. But it remained unclear, ahead of a meeting of foreign ministers today in Vienna, Austria, whether Russia and China would agree.
Rice said that while talks in Vienna on the issue have made "substantial progress, ... some outstanding issues remain."
American allies and many U.S. foreign policy experts have been urging President Bush and his administration to take part in talks, arguing that unless Washington showed a willingness to engage, it could not convince other countries that the time had come to impose penalties on Iran.
But the Bush administration has resisted direct talks on the grounds that such negotiations would lend legitimacy to a regime in Tehran that the United States has condemned since the Islamic revolution in 1979. In reversing that stance, U.S. officials equated their participation in multinational talks with what the administration has done in the case of North Korea's nuclear program.
Rice said any talks with Iran would be focused tightly on the nuclear issue and would not be aimed at reaching a "grand bargain" to resolve all differences between the two countries. Nevertheless, some U.S. officials and foreign diplomats said the new approach had been advanced by Rice in the face of resistance from more hawkish members of the Bush administration.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said the president had called the leaders of France, Germany and Russia on Tuesday to discuss the deal and that "they all signed off." He said the United States and its allies are "finalizing both a series of inducements and punishments."
"Everybody is very close," Snow said, pointing to "a climate for action."
Bush addressed the policy shift in comments at the White House. "Our message to the Iranians is that, one, you won't have a weapon, and two, that you must verifiably suspend any programs, at which point we will come to the negotiating table to work on a way forward."
Rice said that if Iran did not budge, the United States would move to "increase the pressure," either through the U.N. Security Council, "or, if necessary, with like-minded states outside of the Security Council."
Iran says the uranium enrichment program is intended only to produce fuel for nuclear reactors that would produce electricity. But the United States and some European allies fear that Tehran's goal is to develop nuclear weapons. Britain, France and Germany negotiated with Iran for two years over the disputed program, but talks broke off when Iran resumed enrichment.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has spoken scornfully of the incentive package being developed in Vienna. But Iranian officials have also intermittently signaled an interest in drawing the United States into negotiations, in part out of hopes that it could exact a U.S. commitment to drop efforts to change the regime.
The White House has heard calls to negotiate from a variety of sources, including Republican members of Congress and key figures of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. But some administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, have resisted, fearing that talks would only give Iranian leaders more stature and more time to advance their weapons program.
The U.S. overture to Iran offers an opening for negotiations but with so many strings attached that little may happen in the short term, experts say.
Under the proposal, the United States would enter into direct talks only if Iran first agreed to suspend enrichment of uranium. If Iran failed to comply, the five permanent members of the Security Council would move ahead with a resolution that could lead to sanctions. The incentive package would be offered simultaneously with the tabling of the Security Council resolution.
Both demands would be hard to swallow for Iran and Russia. Iran has said that it will not re-enter negotiations if there are conditions attached. And Russia has said it opposes any Security Council measure that could lead to sanctions.
Despite those publicly held positions, the U.S. offer is considered likely to push all parties to reassess their positions. And diplomats and experts around the world applauded the move as the only hope that there could be a negotiated solution to Iran's drive to enrich uranium.
"They've crossed the threshold; they've said they will talk directly to the Iranians. ... There are conditions that make it make it unlikely that it will happen quickly, but it's part of a process," said a senior envoy in Vienna, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with diplomatic protocol.
"Two weeks ago, it was way down the road that they might consider talking. Now, it's if certain conditions are met. We'll allow diplomacy to take its course, and if the U.S. is engaged, ... it will be qualitatively different."
International Atomic Energy Agency Director Mohamed ElBaradei, who has quietly encouraged face-to-face talks, welcomed the U.S. move and said he "strongly encourages Iran to create the conditions necessary for the resumption of these talks, with U.S. participation, with a view to achieving a comprehensive settlement that is acceptable to both the international community and Iran."
European diplomats and experts reacted enthusiastically to the American move, even if it does not lead to any quick resolution.
"The Iranians have been demanding direct discussions with the U.S., so it would give much more credibility to the Europeans if they have the Americans sitting at the same table," a European diplomat said.
Patrick Clawson, a longtime Iran watcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he was not surprised that the Bush administration would make the offer once it worked out an agreement with other countries on penalties.
"The U.S. position for some time has been, 'If we can agree on the stick, we'll come with the carrot,'" he said. "That's what this is."
Clawson said he doubted that the Iranians would accept the U.S. offer. But Tehran's refusal, Clawson said, could make it easier for the United States to enlist countries to impose sanctions.
Paul Richter and Alissa J. Rubin write for the Los Angeles Times.