WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is changing course on Iran in its final months, floating a proposal to open a de facto U.S. Embassy in Tehran in addition to its decision to send a senior envoy to talks with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator.
The shift from its long-standing confrontational policy of isolating Iran in favor of a diplomatic approach resembles the direction taken to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program. The hope is that engagement can jolt a stagnant effort to resolve concerns about Tehran's disputed nuclear program where war drums could not.
If U.S. diplomats did set up shop in Tehran, it would be their first presence in the nearly 30 years since the countries broke relations after the 1979 Islamic revolution. The administration had already announced it will, for the first time, send a senior envoy to talks with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator. Until the weekend meeting in Switzerland, the United States has insisted it would not speak with the Iranians until they end the suspicious activities.
Neither move guarantees results. There are still hawks who oppose the tactical switch, still underpinned by broad penalties against Iran and President Bush's refusal to rule out any option, including force, to keep Iran from developing the bomb.
But officials who have championed these separate but parallel drives say new ideas must be tried if the threat posed by Iran is to be contained or eliminated by the end of Bush's second term in January.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her new third-in-command at the State Department, William Burns, have been among the most vocal proponents of the new direction, officials say. Burns will represent the United States at Saturday's meeting with Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili in Geneva.
Burns will then meet with Rice on Monday in Abu Dhabi, where they will brief senior Arab officials wary of Iran's intentions on the latest developments. Rice said Thursday the administration's decision to send Burns to the talks proves that the United States is committed to diplomacy and shows that the world is united in trying to deal with Iran's nuclear program. That program, along with recent military muscle flexing in the Persian Gulf, has spiked tensions and spooked oil markets.
"The point that we're making is the United States is firmly behind this diplomacy, firmly behind and unified with our allies," she said. "It's going to be very clear to them" that the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — as well as Germany and other countries are united.
The nations have offered Iran incentives to halt activities that could lead to the development of nuclear weapons. If Iran declines the offer, as it has done with previous ones, it will face new penalties.
Officials say Burns will be listening, not negotiating, at the meeting that they insist is a "one-time event." But his mere presence signals a significant change in Bush's approach toward Iran, a charter member of what he termed the "axis of evil" in 2002.
Amid discussions on the plan last month, Rice and Burns have pushed for the administration to open an "interest section" in Tehran, similar to the one it operates in Havana, that would allow for greater U.S. outreach to the Iranian people.