By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON, July 16 (Reuters) - With just six months left in office, the Bush administration has done an about-face in joining talks with Tehran over its nuclear program, a move analysts say is driven partly by a desire to avoid war with Iran.
For years, the Bush administration said it would join nuclear talks with Iran only if it gave up uranium enrichment, but with President George W. Bush’s term ending in January and tensions rising with Tehran, Washington feels it cannot afford to be excluded.
U.S. Under Secretary of State William Burns will join EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and officials from China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany in Geneva on Saturday in talks with Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, to discuss an offer made last month by the six major powers.
"The administration does not want a conflict. It has been made emphatically clear that the U.S. is pursuing a diplomatic option," said Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington thinktank.
The perception, especially in global financial markets, of a growing likelihood of a confrontation between Iran and the United States or Israel has rattled oil markets in recent months, helping drive prices to record highs.
Encouraged by nuclear talks with North Korea, which have shown a breakthrough in recent months, the Bush administration wanted to take a similar line with Iran, said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert from the University of Maryland.
"If they really want a diplomatic solution to this then they have to make more effort," said Telhami.
Another reason for sending Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and the third-ranking official in the State Department, was to ensure not too many concessions were made, particularly by players such as China and Russia that have shown more sympathy toward Tehran.
"He is there as the bad cop. There is nervousness that Solana and some of the other countries, such as China and Russia might be willing to settle for less than full suspension (of uranium enrichment)," said Gary Samore, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
"The administration wants to be absolutely sure that it is a participant over the shape of this," he added.
In June, Solana presented Tehran with a package of economic and other incentives proposed by world powers to coax Iran to halt sensitive nuclear work, including cooperation on a civilian nuclear program.
Iran has repeatedly refused to suspend uranium enrichment, as demanded by the six powers before formal negotiations can begin on the offer.
Iran, the world’s fourth largest oil producer, denies Western charges it wants to build nuclear weapons and says its program is designed to make electricity to increase its output of oil and gas.
Tehran and Washington cut diplomatic ties shortly after the Iranian revolution of 1979 and while the announcement of Burns’ attendance on Saturday was a surprise, the United States has been in talks over the past year with Iran over its role in Iraq and has also previously had discussions over Afghanistan.
The question of engaging Iran is one of the major foreign policy issues in the U.S. presidential campaign ahead of the November election. Democratic candidate Barack Obama has been criticized by Republican opponent John McCain for his willingness to talk without preconditions to leaders of hostile foreign nations like Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
A senior U.S. official said Burns’ orders were to make the White House position clear that full uranium enrichment suspension was a condition for any full-blown talks to begin.
"Burns will reiterate the suspension condition. He is there to listen, not to negotiate," said a senior White House official.
But several analysts said it would be impossible for the United States not to negotiate in such a setting.
"It is complete nonsense. What is he going to do, sit there?" asked one Iran expert, Ray Takeyh, who suggested Burns could establish a back channel with the Iranians.
In terms of the timing, U.S. officials say Washington was mindful of its own political calendar and also wanted to take advantage of what appeared to be divisions within Iran’s establishment over whether or not to accept the offer.
"I think the perception is that there is an internal debate in Iran as to whether to accept the offer and that Bill Burns’ presence might tip the scale in favor of those who would like to engage in diplomatic dialogue," said Takeyh.
The senior White House official said the decision to send Burns "shows that we are serious about the diplomatic path, but that there are consequences if Iran doesn’t accept the offer. The Iranians have an opportunity here."
The official said the consequences could include additional sanctions. Iran has already been subject to three rounds of U.N. sanctions as well as bilateral measures imposed by the United States and European nations. (Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, editing by Kristin Roberts and Frances Kerry)