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The Bush administration says it will maintain its policy of carrots and sticks when it comes to Iran. But critics say it is time for more carrots or real diplomatic push than point out that the U.S. missed opportunities in the past.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has that story.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The newly released National Intelligence Estimate says Iran halted a secret nuclear weapons program in 2003. That was a time when international inspectors, tipped off by Iranian opposition figures, were uncovering information about Iran's nuclear program. The U.S., still feeling victorious after toppling Iraq's Saddam Hussein, brushed off an Iranian offer for talks, and the Europeans tried to make for that starting their own effort to negotiate with Iran.

Joschka Fischer was Germany's foreign minister at the time.

Mr. JOSCHKA FISCHER (Former Foreign Minister, Germany): Well, the U.S. was not in favor of the negotiations, but they were not blocking the negotiations. We were always in a situation where we had to negotiate on the one hand with the Iranian side, on the other hand with our American allies.

KELEMEN: It wasn't until President Bush's second term in office that he made some gestures to support the European diplomatic track, and it was the summer of 2006 when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the U.S. would actually join talks if Iran suspended uranium enrichment activities and if Europe, Russia and China would agree to sanctions if Iran didn't cooperate.

In an interview in Vienna at the time, she dismissed critics who said she had missed an opportunity to negotiate from a position of strength back in 2003.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Department of State): The people wanted - or what the Iranians wanted earlier was to be one-on-one with the United States so that this could be about the United States and Iran. Now, it is Iran and the international community, and Iran has to answer to the international community. I think that's the strongest possible position to be in.

KELEMEN: But Iran never met the preconditions for talks and it became increasingly difficult to deal with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Fischer says that it's hard to say whether it would've been easier under the previous Iranian president that spilled milk, as he put it, in a telephone interview from Germany. But he does fell vindicated now that U.S. intelligence officials have backed up the need for diplomacy and have taken away any pretext for war.

Mr. FISCHER: I was very concerned about the debate in the last months in your country and especially in the administration by the military option because I think this would have led us in a dark tunnel without light at the end of the tunnel. I mean, the ramifications would have been unpredictable and definitely not controllable.

KELEMEN: The trouble is the new intelligence makes one part of the carrots-and-sticks diplomacy harder - that it is keeping Russia and China on board for new sanctions.

Secretary Rice has to meet tomorrow in Brussels with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said that the new intelligence confirms what the Russians have been saying - that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program.

Mr. SERGEY LAVROV (Foreign Minister, Russia): (Foreign language spoken)

KELEMEN: We have no information that there was such a program even before 2003, Lavrov said, though our American colleagues say there was.

Russia has long argued for diplomacy rather than sanctions. Germany's former foreign minister Fischer says the two still have to go hand in hand particularly now that the Security Council has gone on record, demanding that Iran suspend enrichment activities.

Mr. FISCHER: I'm in favor to continue with the isolation as long as they do not obey to the decisions of the Security Council. But on the other side, it would be, I think, more effective especially if the United States would open, in the deep background, direct channel and discuss all the relevant issues, not only about Iraq.

KELEMEN: The U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq have met several times to discuss security issues there, but as for a broader discussion, U.S. officials have made clear they don't want to lose faith and simply drop demands that the Iranians suspend uranium-enrichment activities first. Iranians have not been enticed by the Western offer of talks so far and analysts say they are likely to demand a bigger price now, leaving the situation in a diplomatic deadlock.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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