After weeks of debate inside the Bush administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Wednesday that the United States is ready to join direct talks with Iran - if Iran first suspends its uranium-enrichment activities.
Saying the decision "gives the negotiation track new energy," Dr. Rice characterized the redirection of US policy as President Bush's determination "to do everything we can to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear problem."
The announcement came on the eve of Rice's trip to Europe to nail down details of an international carrots-and-sticks approach to Iran. It appeared designed to send several key signals:
• That Iran is not Iraq, and that the US is determined to exhaust diplomatic measures to resolve the standoff.
• That the US will take tough, controversial steps to form a common front with its European allies.
• That the US expects reciprocal tough steps from other key international players involved in the tussle - specifically Russia and China - if Iran fails to suspend the uranium-enrichment and reprocessing elements of its nuclear program.
As outlined by Rice, the new plan calls for the US to join the so-called EU-3 - the European Union countries Britain, France, and Germany - in talks with Iran if Tehran verifiably suspends uranium enrichment.
The decision follows not just internal administration debate, but also weeks of meetings with European leaders and officials who had been telling US representatives that the diplomatic offensive was unlikely to go forward if the US was not at the negotiating table.
In addition, Mr. Bush has been on the telephone in recent days with his counterparts on the United Nations Security Council, in particular Russia's President Vladimir Putin, to press the importance of including "sticks" in any diplomatic overture to Tehran.
Though Iran had yet to officially respond by press time, the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad signaled in recent months that it is ready to engage the US in dialogue. European allies and officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency have long made clear that, with such a high-stakes game of nuclear "chicken" apparently under way, the US would eventually be forced to engage Tehran directly.
"However we look at it, [the US step] is positive. But will it get somewhere? I don't know," says Shirzad Bozorgmehr, a senior editor of the English-language Iran News in Tehran. "It is significant, but there are several preconditions that Iran already said it would not agree to ... such as suspending enrichment."
Rice's comments could be the "beginning of some discussion, however contentious," says Mr. Bozorgmehr, and they follow delivery of a less-than-elegant, unprecedented letter from the Iranian president to Bush on May 8.
"From the Iranian side, there was the letter from Ahmadinejad, which - however it was interpreted by the Americans ... - was a kind of 'come on,' no matter how subtle," says Bozorgmehr. "Though [Ahmadinejad] was critical of the American system and policies, the fact that he wrote the letter means he has taken one step forward. And I assume that this is the American way of stepping forward in reaction."
It is unlikely the Bush administration would take the step it did Wednesday without some assurances from certain countries, which in the past have shied away from any concrete reference to sanctions against Tehran, that the US can count on support for the two-tier plan of carrots and sticks. At the same time, Rice no doubt wished to arrive in Vienna Thursday with a strong hand to show at a meeting of foreign ministers from the five permanent Security Council nations plus Germany.
Rice acknowledged Wednesday that not all details of the package of incentives and sanctions had been agreed upon. She also cautioned that the US decision does not constitute the "grand bargain" that some analysts have said an American opening to Iran would constitute. The US has not had formal diplomatic ties with Iran since 1979.
"Many issues we have with Iran are not related to the nuclear issue," Rice said. She listed Iran's support for international terrorism, its role in Lebanon, and its "support of violence" in Iraq as three of the many hurdles that make any talk of "full diplomatic relations" between the two countries premature.
Rice was careful to suggest that even though the US offer was to sit down with Iranian officials, the overture is really designed to reach the Iranian people. The US wants "positive relations with the Iranian people," she said.
That position squares with the Bush administration's plans to step up US contact with the Iranian people - in particular pro-democracy and opposition forces in the country - through additional broadcasts of Radio-Free-Europe-type programming, work with labor unions, and student exchanges.
At the same time, however, the US refusal at this stage to include the possibility of eventual relations with Iran may make Tehran wary of the offer to the point of dismissing it, some analysts say.
"Rice's reticence about offering the possibility of normalized relations, and the unwillingness to offer security guarantees if Iran comes into compliance [with Security Council demands of ending uranium enrichment], may make it very difficult for Iran to accept," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.
Some observers see parallels between the US offer to join multilateral talks with Iran and similar, though stalled, talks with North Korea. Mr. Kimball notes that the US did not insist that North Korea first cease its plutonium operations - and did hold out the enticement of eventual security guarantees if Pyonyang agreed to give up nuclear arms.
• Staff writer Scott Peterson contributed to this report.