The Bush administration is beginning to debate whether to set aside a longstanding policy taboo and open direct talks with Iran to help avert a crisis over Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program, the New York Times reported Saturday.
The debate was heating up as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice worked with European foreign ministers to persuade Iran to suspend its efforts to enrich uranium, the newspaper quoted unidentified U.S. and European officials as saying.
The European officials, who have been in contact with Washington in recent weeks, said Rice has begun discussing the issue with top aides at the State Department. Her belief, they said, is that ultimately the matter will have to be addressed by the Bush administration's national security officials, whether talks with Iran remain at an impasse or even if there is some progress.
But others who know Rice well say the secretary of state is resisting on the ground that signaling a willingness to talk would show weakness and disrupt the delicate negotiations with Europe.
Rice is also said to fear that the Bush administration might end up making too many concessions to Iran.
U.S. government officials said President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have opposed direct talks, even through informal back channels. As a result, many European officials say they doubt that a decision to talk is likely soon.
The prospect of direct talks between the United States and Iran is so politically delicate within the Bush administration that the officials who described the emerging debate would discuss it only after being granted anonymity, the New York Times said.
European leaders make no secret of their desire for the United States to join the talks with Iran, if only to show that the Americans have gone the extra mile to avoid a confrontation that could spiral into a fight over sanctions or even military action.
Discussion about possible American contacts with Iran has been fueled not simply by the Europeans, but by a growing chorus of outsiders with ties to the administration who have spoken out in favor of talks.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in a recent column in the Washington Post, raised the possibility that the recent letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush could be seen as an opportunity to open contacts.
Both Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a top aide to former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, and Richard L. Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state under Powell, have also advocated talks with Iran.