WASHINGTON — For now, the Bush administration has chosen compromise over confrontation in dealing with Iran's disputed nuclear program with a dramatic gesture intended to demonstrate commitment to a negotiated solution.
In breaking with past policy to send a top diplomat to weekend talks with Iran's chief nuclear envoy, the administration has in its waning months refined its position on contact with the hardline Iranian regime, much as it did in the ongoing effort to rid North Korea of its atomic weapons, which has shown recent promise.
U.S. officials on Wednesday dismissed comparisons between the administration's approach to the two remaining members of Bush's "axis of evil," but they acknowledged broad similarities in the end game.
They said the participation of William Burns, the State Department's third-ranking diplomat, in Saturday's meeting in Switzerland is aimed at proving America's resolve to peacefully prevent Iran from developing nuclear arms while also exploiting perceived splits in Iran's hardline Islamic government.
"What this does show is how serious we are when we say that we want to try to solve this diplomatically," White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters a day after President Bush signed off on dispatching Burns to the meeting with Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
At the meeting being led by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Jalili is expected to give Iran's definitive answer to incentives offered to Tehran last month by the United States and five other nations in exchange for its suspension of activities that can produce the ingredients needed for a bomb.
Burns will not negotiate with Jalili but officials said he will listen to his presentation of Iran's final answer to the package. Burns will also restate a U.S. offer for formal negotiations with Iran if it suspends uranium enrichment and reprocessing. He will warn that if the deal is not accepted, the Iranian government can expect more sanctions to be imposed on its banking and financial sectors. And, he will remind Iran that Bush has not taken the military option off the table.
"We believe the timing is right, now, to go and underscore the unity of the international community that Iran must suspend its nuclear uranium enrichment, and then we can talk about negotiations from there," Perino said, maintaining that the meeting was a "one-time U.S. participation."
Still, the decision to send Burns to the meeting breaks with long-standing policy under which the United States had insisted it would not meet with Iranian officials outside of talks on the security situation in Iraq unless Iran had already suspended enrichment and reprocessing.
Iran and the United States broke off diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and hostage crisis and the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and official contacts between the two countries are extremely rare. Although Washington is key part of a six-nation effort on Iran's nuclear program, it has shunned direct talks with Tehran on the matter.
Officials denied an all-out policy shift, although they allowed that a not-so-subtle shift was under way, partly intended to take advantage of what Washington sees as internal rifts in Tehran over whether to accept the package of incentives presented by the United States, the other four members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany.
"There's no change in the substance, but it sends a strong signal," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
He downplayed suggestions the administration had adopted the same course it has taken with North Korea but said Burns' mission was roughly the same as those of diplomats engaged in talks with Pyongyang.
"If you're trying to confront a tough issue, it helps to highlight the contrasts, various pathways, various consequences, both negative and positive for certain decisions by the party at hand, in one case, North Korea, in the other case, Iran," McCormack said.
At the White House, Perino said the meeting would sharpen the contrast for the Iranian people of life under the current regime there, compared with the opportunities they could have if Iran accepts the incentives deal. And, she added, the meeting will "further clarify the consequences" if Iran does not accept the incentives.
Iranian officials vehemently deny their nuclear program is intended for anything other than civilian power production, but the international community, particularly the United States, suspects it is trying to secretly develop an atomic bomb.
Saturday's meeting will come at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and Iran, especially after Iranian missile tests last week prompted President Bush's top aides to warn that the United States would defend its friends and interests in the Middle East.
The tensions have also spilled over into the U.S. presidential campaign.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has advocated for direct diplomacy with Iran and welcomed the decision to send Burns to Geneva, calling for continued engagement with Tehran. "Now that the United States is involved, it should stay involved with the full strength of our diplomacy," he said in a statement.
Republican John McCain, meanwhile, has been more cautious about talks with Iran and had supported the administration's non-engagement policy. His campaign had no immediate comment on the new development.