Europe's leading nations, yielding to US demands for a tougher stance on Iran, warned on Friday that any failure by the Iranian government to give up its suspected nuclear arms program would leave them "no choice" but to seek punishments at the UN Security Council.
The European warning came as a diplomatic counterpart to a statement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confirming that the US, too, had shifted its position on Iran -- in its case toward a more conciliatory approach of offering limited economic incentives if Iran cooperated on nuclear matters.
Rice said that US President George W. Bush would drop his objections to Iran's application to the WTO and would "consider, on a case-by-case basis, the licensing of spare parts of Iranian civilian aircraft."
"We share the desire of European governments to secure Iran's adherence to its obligations through peaceful and diplomatic means," she said in the statement.
"Today's announcement demonstrates that we are prepared to take practical steps to support European efforts to this end," Rice said.
Taken together, the statements, issued in an orchestrated fashion in Washington and Brussels, Belgium, opened a new phase in efforts to defuse the crisis over Iran's nuclear program.
Now that Europe and the US are in harmony on specific incentives and threats, there is an expectation that talks can move forward. In the last two years, Iran's nuclear program has moved up on the agenda for the US and Europe, but there has been a gulf over how sternly to deal with it.
European officials said the agreement's importance went beyond Iran, because it showed that Bush had decided to throw his support behind the effort. What that also represented, some in the administration acknowledged, was a White House move to restrain administration hawks for now.
Rice and other officials acknowledged that Bush moved only after becoming convinced that he was in danger of being blamed if the talks failed because he had repeatedly rebuffed European demands to join in the incentives.
The administration has been sensitive to the charge by conservatives and others that going too far to placate the Europeans could put the administration in the position of legitimizing Iran's government, overlooking its links to terrorism, and rewarding it for bad behavior.
But Rice and other officials said the administration's view of Iran as a rogue state was unchanged. All that had changed, she said, was the way of dealing with Iran.
No timetable was set for negotiations. Rice and other officials hinted that a quick deadline might force Iran to walk away and resume suspended uranium enrichment.
A European official, endorsing that view, said, "Iran right now has suspended its activities, verified by inspections. That means we don't have to be in such a hurry. If the Iranians try to cheat, we're in a position to know it."
US and European officials also emphasized on Friday that their joint agreement meant that, at some point in the talks, the West would raise concerns about Iran's support of Hezbollah and other groups.
The announcements, a culmination of weeks of negotiations led by Rice, clarified aspects of her talks. For example, US and European officials said the statements made clear that the West would not tolerate Iran enriching uranium for civilian nuclear energy, despite international accords that allow it.
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