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Iran dismisses U.S. policy shift

U.S. President Bush speaking in Shreveport, Louisiana, Friday.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States has dropped its opposition to Iran's application for membership in the World Trade Organization in an effort to bolster European negotiations with the Tehran regime over its nuclear program.

The three European countries negotiating with Iran -- Britain, Germany and France -- had been pressing the Bush administration to drop American opposition to Iran trying to enter the WTO, which facilitates trade between nations.

Those nations, in return, agreed to send the dispute with Iran to the U.N. Security Council if the Iranians fail to fulfill their international agreements, including a promise to halt uranium enrichment.

"I am pleased that we are speaking with one voice with our European friends," U.S. President Bush told a crowd in Shreveport, Louisiana.

"I look forward to working with our European friends to make it abundantly clear to the Iranian regime that the free world will not tolerate them having a nuclear weapon."

But a senior Iranian negotiator in nuclear talks with the European Union, Cyrus Naseri, dismissed the U.S. move as a mere gesture, saying "it is too ridiculous to be called an offer."

"It is like trading a lion for a mouse," he told CNN. "Would the United States be prepared to give up its own nuclear fuel production against a cargo of pistachios delivered in truckloads?"

Pistachios are an Iranian export.

He said the U.S. deciding not to oppose Iran's entrance into the WTO "is really not something so significant that we could even discuss it as a tradeoff for anything at all."

The European countries were already obligated by treaty to pursue Iran entrance into the WTO, he said, calling it "in the interest of Europe as much as it is in the interest of Iran."

And, he added, Iran is negotiating with the European countries, not with the United States, and "what we are negotiating is that we will pursue our nuclear fuel production, which is aimed for our own nuclear power generation, and that it will be monitored properly by IAEA so it will not be diverted for military purposes."

Iran maintains that its nuclear program, which it is building with Russian assistance, is solely for the production of nuclear energy and that it has no plans to use it to build nuclear weapons.

But the Bush administration -- skeptical that oil-rich Iran really has a burning need for nuclear power -- believes Iran is trying to cloak a covert nuclear weapons program in the guise of a civilian program.

The United States has refused to enter the European negotiations with Iran, which President Bush branded in 2002 as part of the "axis of evil."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the U.S. policy shift in a statement, saying it was being done "in order to support the European diplomacy.

The United States will also consider, on a case-by-case basis, the licensing of spare parts for Iranian civilian aircraft, in particular from the European Union to Iran, she said.

"The key here was to establish with our European allies a common agenda, a common approach to the issue of getting the Iranians to live up to the international obligations which they have undertaken," she told reporters in Washington.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday that "the point, I think, for Iran is they do have an opportunity."

"They have an opportunity here if they're willing to take it," he said.

In a letter to the European Union updating the status of the talks with Iran, the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany said "while progress is not as fast as we would wish, we believe we are moving in the right direction."

"We should have at least preliminary results to show from the negotiations in the period ahead," said the letter, co-signed by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

However, if Iran does not fulfill its international commitments, including ceasing nuclear enrichment and reprocessing activities, then "we shall have no choice but to support referring Iran's nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council" -- a move which the United States has been pushing.

The European leaders said they were "united in our determination that Iran should not acquire a nuclear weapons capability" and "remain committed to pursuing all diplomatic means to resolve the outstanding issues through negotiation."

They are offering Iran incentives, including support for energy programs and economic assistance.

The United States has insisted that any offer of incentives must also include clear consequences if Iran refuses the offer.

According to the European negotiators, the Iranians are seeking a number of trade-related incentives, including reducing Iran's trade deficit with Europe, gaining easier access to export licenses and technology transfers and encouraging more European companies to import Iranian goods.

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