The Bush administration says there has been no fundamental shift in policy regarding Iran's nuclear program - only a renewed emphasis on the diplomatic track pursued by European nations.
Last week, the Bush administration signaled its willingness to provide economic incentives for Iran to limit its nuclear ambitions to the peaceful production of energy. Appearing on CBS's Face the Nation program, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Iran is facing a unified trans-Atlantic front.
"We had said sometime ago that we supported the diplomacy that the Europeans were involved in, that this needs to have a diplomatic solution," she said. "What the president did this week was to make that support more active by withdrawing our objection to a couple of things that the Europeans would like to offer in a package to the Iranians."
Ms. Rice noted that Russia has also acted to constrain Iran's nuclear capabilities by stipulating that Iran will return spent fuel rods under a recent bilateral accord governing nuclear materials provided by Russia.
Also appearing on Face the Nation was the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden. The senator expressed hope that the United States' increased willingness to consider economic incentives for Iran will be matched by increased resolve on the part of European governments to pursue sanctions against Iran if diplomacy fails.
"Do I think that the Iranians will forswear their quest for nuclear capability? I am pessimistic," he said. "But if they do not, we [the United States] had better be on the same page with Europe, so that we can, in fact, go to the next step, which would be serious sanctions [on Iran]."
In recent days, Iranian officials have made dismissive statements about U.S. economic incentives, and indicated that progress in talks with Europe is slow. In Washington, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Richard Lugar, is urging patience with Iran, noting that the country is scheduled to hold elections later this year.
"I think it will be difficult for the Iranians to come to final settlement with the elections still at hand and a potential change in leadership," he said. "Now, down the trail time may be on our side. By that I mean younger Iranians, again and again, in polls are saying they like Americans. They like the idea of greater freedom for themselves. If a majority of the country is under 25 and they are having these thoughts, then for a while the diplomatic strategy does appear to be in the best interests of everybody involved."
Iran has long insisted its only nuclear goal is to provide increased energy to a growing population. But critics say that assurance is belied by a spotty record of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.