WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama could open talks with Iran on its nuclear program early next year if he wins the White House, one of his senior foreign policy advisers said on Thursday.
Former U.S. national security adviser Tony Lake suggested Washington needed to give Tehran a sharper choice between the consequences of continuing its suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons and the benefits of giving it up.
The Bush administration accuses Iran of seeking to develop atomic weapons and has sought to persuade Iran to give up its sensitive nuclear work through a carrot-and-stick approach of incentives and sanctions.
Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons, saying that its uranium enrichment program is to generate electricity.
After refusing to talk directly to Iran on the nuclear issue unless it first suspending uranium enrichment, Bush in July changed policy and sent a top diplomat to join a meeting of major powers — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — with Iran.
Obama strongly backed that move. He has said that if elected he would pursue a policy of greater engagement aimed at persuading Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions but has not been specific about the timing.
The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany presented a new package of incentives to Tehran last month, offering to hold off on further sanctions if Iran froze expansion of its nuclear work. Iran has not accepted the offer. The United Nations Security Council has already passed three resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran.
Obama hopes the administration makes progress before Bush steps down in January, Lake said, but he believes the United States and its allies needed to devise tougher potential sanctions to increase its leverage over Tehran.
“He (Obama) is saying that as soon as he takes office that we have to have a very serious set of negotiations with the Iranians in which we in effect present them with a choice,” Lake said in a panel on the sidelines of the Democratic convention in Denver, broadcast by C-Span television.
The United States needed to make clear that there “will be consequences” to the pursuit of nuclear weapons, Lake said.
“We have to work with other nations now in increasing the leverage that we have for that negotiation and increasing the sanctions that could be placed on the Iranians,” he said.
Speculation that the United States or Israel might resort to military action against Iran has rattled oil markets in recent months.
Lake said the United States needed to make clear to the Iranians they would benefit if they changed direction. “It is a course that will help them build up an economy that is showing considerable strain,” he added.
“Everybody in this room should pray that they make that latter choice,” he said. “This is an extremely important issue, an extremely serious issue and an extremely urgent issue.
“It could well lead to the worst crisis that we will see over the next five years because the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon will present a huge threat to the security of Israel, to others in the region, to the Europeans, including the Russians, and many others.”
Editing by Alan Elsner