The United States, the four other permanent U.N. Security Council
member countries and Germany are seeking an early meeting with Iran to
explore that country's willingness to negotiate over its nuclear
program. The decision Friday follows an Iranian overture for talks
made to the so-called "P5+1" grouping earlier this week.
The broadly worded Iranian overture did not address concerns about the country's nuclear program, and officials of President Barack Obama's administration say that is disappointing.
But the United States is nonetheless joining its P5+1 partners in accepting the Iranian invitation, in order to test Iran's willingness to engage in meaningful talks on its nuclear program.
European Union chief diplomat Javier Solana, who has represented the P5+1 in dealings with Iran, has contacted the office of Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili to arrange a meeting.
U.S. officials hope it can be convened before key big-power discussions of the Iranian nuclear issue begin in New York during the third week of this month, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session.
At a news briefing, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley said the United States would take part in any meeting arranged by Solana. It would be a rare-face-to-face encounter between diplomats of the two countries, which have not had formal relations in 30 years.
Crowley said the fact that diplomatic note from Tehran did not address concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions is one reason why an exploratory meeting with the Iranians is so important.
"Clearly the Iranian paper does not reply to these concerns," he said. "It does not cover the nuclear issue. That's precisely why we think we need an early meeting. We're not interested in talking for talking's sake."
"We're looking to see through an early meeting, should Iran be willing, we'd be looking to see if they are willing to engage seriously on these issues - but within the context of the P5+1 - the full range of issues that we have among these countries and Iran," he added.
Crowley said the Obama administration wants the meeting - presumably at the level of Foreign Ministry political directors - to be held as soon as possible, so that P5+1 leaders can assess Iran's readiness to deal with the nuclear issue in their discussions at the United Nations.
He indicated the administration intends to make an assessment by year's end as to whether a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear issue is possible.
While Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, the United States and European allies believe Tehran is seeking a weapons capability.
In April, the P5+1 offered Iran a revised package of incentives for it to halt uranium enrichment and return to negotiations over its nuclear program. However, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said earlier this week that Iran will not stop the enrichment drive, and considers the matter closed.
A senior U.S. official who spoke to reporters said Iran had sent diplomatic signals that it would respond to the P5+1 offer after its June presidential elections, and that post-election political "mayhem" in that country was probably behind the delay.
The official declined to call the envisaged meeting a last chance for Tehran. But if the Tehran government chooses not to engage on the nuclear issue, he said, that would put the United States in a stronger position to seek "other ways" of applying pressure on Iran.