European officials have hailed a decision by the US to send a senior envoy to weekend talks in Geneva with Iran aimed at resolving the dispute over Tehran's nuclear work.
Iranians in Germany protest against a nuclear-armed Tehran
The decision by the United States to send William Burns, the under secretary of state for politicial affairs, to nuclear talks with Iran on Saturday, July 19, in Geneva has has been welcomed by many as a shift in Washington's hard-line stance towards Iran.
Burns will join EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana and officials from Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China for talks with Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeid Jalili.
Saeid Jalili is Iran's point man on nuclear negotiations
"We are very pleased by the administration's decision," Cristina Gallach, Solana's spokeswoman, said in an interview with The New York Times this week. "It is a clear signal to the Iranians of the engagement of the United States and its commitment to a negotiated solution. At the same time, it is a clear message to the Iranians of the seriousness of this exercise."
World leaders are holding talks with Iran to assess the response to their enhanced offer of financial and diplomatic incentives to halt Tehran's covert uranium enrichment, which the West suspects is being used to develop nuclear weapons.
US involvement seen as a positive sign
Iran, too, has hailed the US' participation in weekend talks.
"The American participation is positive," Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told a news conference in Damascus. "We look forward to constructive engagement."
France, who holds the current six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, shared Mottaki's enthusiasm.
"The presence of an American is good news," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said this week. "France has always said that not only sanctions need to be imposed, dialogue is necessary as well," he said.
UN resolutions and sanctions, aimed at coercing Iran into suspending its nuclear activities, have not led to any results, Kouchner said.
Washington has had no relations with Iran since 1980. But experts believe its engagement with Iran is crucial in resolving the standoff since the US would have the most to offer it in terms of relief from international political and economic sanctions.
Last week, Burns, who will attend the Geneva talks, hinted that Washington is considering opening a diplomatic mission in Tehran for the first time in 30 years.
Burns hinted at further advances in US-Iran relations
Opening a so-called interest section "is an interesting concept that is worth looking at carefully," Burns told the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee.
US officials said that the "new tactic" amounted to sending a signal to Iran that Washington wanted a negotiated settlement to the deadlock over Iran's refusal to bow to international demands.
Washington has long said it will not negotiate with Iran until it first suspends enrichment and insisted Wednesday that Burns was traveling to Geneva to listen to Iran's response and not negotiate.
"Great hopes, low expectations"
The new round of talks in Geneva is aimed at finding a way to begin negotiations on two package proposals that both sides have presented in the past months.
While Iran wants to keep enriching uranium during full negotiations, the other six countries set a suspension of nuclear activities as a precondition for further talks.
However, western leaders were careful to point out that US participation in the talks would not automatically mean they would end successfully.
"Let's put it this way: I foster great hopes for these talks, but I have only low expectations," Kouchner said. "It's too early to say whether there will be any progress," he added.
Kouchner wants dialogue in tandem with sanctions
"Of course Iran is a great country with a great history and culture, and Tehran should take its legitimate place in the world," he said. "The result of Paris' talks with Tehran has always been nil," the French foreign minister added.
Kouchner noted that the three sets of UN Security Council sanctions had not managed to persuade Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment, which the West fears could be used to make the fissile material of nuclear bombs.
France and French oil giants had frozen their investment in Iran and Kouchner said he hoped all countries would do the same.
Rice advocates diplomacy
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice injected some optimism into discussions by saying that the United States is "firmly behind" diplomatic efforts to halt Iran's sensitive nuclear work but did not know if Tehran would respond positively.
"The point we are making is that the United States is firmly behind this diplomacy," Rice said after deciding to send Burns to Geneva to join EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Iran's top negotiator on Saturday.
Rice said the US involvement was a message to Iran
"Hopefully the Iranians will take that message," Rice told reporters after meeting with Alexander Stubb, Finland's foreign minister.
Asked if she expected the Iranians to respond positively to a new incentives package to halt uranium enrichment work offered last month by the United States and five other international partners, she replied: "I don't know."