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U.S. offers direct talks with Iran, with condition

Tehran must suspend disputed nuclear activities, Rice says

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The U.S. wants a "positive relationship" with Iran, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States will join multilateral talks with Iran on its nuclear program once Iran suspends disputed nuclear activities, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday.

"As soon as Iran fully and verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities, the United States will come to the table with our EU-3 colleagues and meet with Iran's representatives," Rice told reporters at the State Department.

The EU-3 -- Britain, France and Germany -- have led negotiations, which stalled earlier this year. China and Russia have also been involved in talks with Iran.

Iran must also resume cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, she said. (Excerpts from Rice's speech)

Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, said only that he had received the statement but, given the late hour in Tehran, would have no immediate comment.

Though President Bush has said he is committed to a diplomatic solution in the standoff with Iran, he "is not going to take any of his options off the table, temporarily or otherwise," Rice said in response to a question about whether a military option remains a possibility.

Bush wants a "positive relationship" between the American people and the people of Iran, Rice said, citing "increased contacts in education, cultural exchange, sports, travel, trade and investment."

But Rice made clear that the move does not represent a first step toward full diplomatic relations with Iran.

"We are not in a position to talk about full diplomatic relations with a state with which we have so many fundamental differences," she said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earlier this month sent a letter to Bush, the first direct communication between the leaders of both nations since the Islamic revolution in Tehran in 1979. (Full story)

Though U.S. officials have refused to participate in nuclear talks with Iran in the past, "the United States might be able now to add weight to the negotiating track by joining these discussions," Rice said.

The ball is in Iran's court, she said. "It's time to know whether Iran is serious about negotiating or not."

Iran has said its nuclear program is intended solely for peaceful purposes, a claim the United States and other countries have disputed.

Rice said the United States acknowledges the right of the Iranian people to civil nuclear energy, but said the country's history of violating its commitments and working on a secret nuclear program mean it must now "persuasively demonstrate" that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons.

Rice added that the nuclear issue is not the sole obstacle to improved relations.

"The Iranian government supports terror, it is involved in violence in Iraq, and it is undercutting the restoration of full sovereignty in Lebanon," she said.

Asked about the positions of Russia and China, whose representatives on the Security Council have been reluctant to criticize Iran, Rice said, "Our friends and partners understand the importance of this step."

Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said, "The more Washington talks about diplomacy and political process and not something else, the better it is, as far as we're concerned."

Bush: 'Robust diplomacy'

Rice cautioned against reading too much into her announcement. She noted that the United States has also participated in multilateral talks with North Korea.

"This is not a bilateral negotiation between the United States and Iran on the whole host of issues that would lead to broader relations," she said.

Rice made it clear she believes there is only one right answer for Iran. If it fails to return to negotiations, the United States will work with the international community "to bring isolation to Iran so Iran realizes it doesn't have any other options."

Rice said her statement was given to Zarif and was conveyed by the Swiss government to Iran.

Shortly afterward, Bush told reporters he considered Rice's announcement "robust diplomacy," and said he had discussed the matter with his counterparts in France, England, Germany and Japan.

"We respect the Iranian people, and we respect their heritage and their history," he said. "And we hope their government listens to the international demands and doesn't isolate itself from the world."

IAEA: Resume talks

In a statement from IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria, Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said he "strongly encourages Iran to create the conditions necessary for the resumption of these talks."

Rice made her remarks at the State Department before departing for Vienna, where the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are to meet.

The U.N. Security Council has demanded that Iran cease enrichment activities, but Iran has refused.

The Security Council has debated a resolution, backed by the United States, Britain and France, that would give the demand the force of international law and open the door to possible sanctions if Iran continues to refuse.

Russia and China, two of the council's veto-wielding permanent members, have said they oppose sanctions.

Rice's speech comes less than a week after Zarif said Tehran would welcome direct talks if Washington stopped the diplomatic bluster.

"Ban the pressure tactics, the intimidation tactics" and talk with Iran directly, Zarif said.

'Iran demands respect'

Just last Thursday, Bush rejected the idea of approaching Iran with incentives. "They're the ones who walked away from the table," he said. "It's on them."

But Rice said Wednesday that the United States and its European partners have agreed on a package of incentives and possible penalties intended to persuade Iran to stop enrichment and cooperate with the IAEA.

Iran has previously rejected any conditions for talks on its nuclear program, which it insists is for civilian purposes.

And Zarif last week said Iran would not respond to a "carrot-and-stick" approach.

"It's not whether Iran likes carrots," he said. "Iran demands respect. If there is to be a solution in Iran, Iran has to be part of the solution."

Iran ended all voluntary cooperation with the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency in February, including allowing snap inspections of its nuclear facilities. The country insists on its right to a full range of nuclear technology.

CNN's Ed Henry and Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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