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Bush eases on iran policy

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Bush Edges Toward Europe in Iran Shift
Thu Mar 3, 2005 05:31 PM ET

By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush on Thursday edged toward backing Europe in offering incentives to Iran to forswear nuclear weapons in what would represent a major shift in strategy toward an arch-foe.

"We want to help make sure the process goes forward and we're looking at ways to help move the process forward. The guilty party is Iran," Bush told reporters.

With U.S.-European talks close to agreement, Bush discussed Iran in the Oval Office with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who met on Tuesday in London with foreign ministers of the three nations handling European negotiations with Iran -- Britain, France and Germany.

U.S. officials said under the new strategy, the United States would not block Iran as it seeks to start the process of joining the World Trade Organization, and would not stand in the way of European allies if they want to sell Tehran parts for civilian aircraft.

In exchange for not standing in the way of the incentives, the United States would insist that Iran abandon uranium enrichment, a demand Tehran so far has refused to accept.

Bush also was considering slightly easing U.S. sanctions law to permit American non-governmental groups to operate in Iran, congressional and diplomatic sources told Reuters.

This would be in line with Bush's desire to draw a distinction between Iran's government and its predominantly young population, which America wants to cultivate.

Some U.S. officials believe offering incentives will strengthen the international community's hand by providing a united front for punitive measures, such as U.N. sanctions, if the incentives do not work.


Rice told reporters at the State Department the negotiations would expose whether Iran is prepared to end the West's suspicions that it is pursuing a nuclear bomb.

"We believe that the EU negotiations are leading in the right direction because what they are doing is they are confronting Iran with a choice about whether it is prepared to give the international community the kind of confidence it needs about Iranian activities," the top U.S. diplomat said.

Bush said Washington was working with its European allies to ensure that "the negotiating strategy achieves the objective of pointing out where guilt needs to be as well as achieving the objective of no nuclear weapon."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush had not made a final decision. He declined to discuss any details.

An announcement of the president's strategy was unlikely on Thursday but could come this week, U.S. officials said.

Supporting Europe on the incentives would mark a significant shift in strategy for Bush, who has been reluctant to consider them before to avoid being seen as rewarding Iran for bad behavior.

During his first term Bush branded Iran part of an "axis of evil," along with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. And Tehran has been an antagonist of Washington since the 1979 Iranian revolution and the seizure that year of more than 60 hostages in the U.S. Embassy in a crisis that lasted 444 days.

Bush has talked of taking Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions on the nuclear issue, and officials believe that still may be necessary depending on how Iran responds.

The United States accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons under cover of its civil nuclear program. Iran denies this, saying its nuclear program is peaceful and aims to produce power for its growing population.

It can take years of negotiations for a country to enter the WTO. Iran could be granted observer status, a stepping stone to full accession. (Additional reporting by Saul Hudson, Tabassum Zakaria and Carol Giacomo)

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