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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Bush administration announced today that the United States is willing to engage in direct talks with Iran over its nuclear program. There's caveat here, though - the Bush administration is willing to talk if Iran agrees to suspend its disputed nuclear weapons program.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made the announcement earlier this hour.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (United States Secretary of State): As soon as Iran fully and verifiably suspends its enrichment and processing activities, the United States will come to the table, with our E.U. colleagues, and meet with Iran's representatives.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about this some more now with Matthew Bunn, a Senior Research Associate at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Good morning.

Mr. MATTHEW BUNN (Senior Research Associate, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University): Good morning.

INSKEEP: I'm looking at some wire service copy, which begins by saying this a major policy shift - is it really?

Mr. BUNN: I think it is. The United States has been saying for some time they would not join the talks with Iran, and now it is saying that they will, if Iran suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activity.

INSKEEP: Is that a realistic demand to make of Iran?

Mr. BUNN: I think it's a realistic demand. Unfortunately, I think Iran has dug itself in so deeply on not re-suspending its activities, it's become a point of pride with Iran that I'm afraid we are - will remain on a path toward political and economic sanctions and potentially, over the longer term, military action.

INSKEEP: Why make that offer now, if you're the United States?

Mr. BUNN: Well, I think it is very important for the United States to make clear that it is not the one standing in the way of making - of talks and negotiations. It would have been, I think, a real danger that Iran would have been able to make the case that it was as much the United States' fault as Iran's fault, had the United States not been willing to join the talks.

I think, at the moment, that there may still be a chance for a deal. I think that if Iran were allowed to keep the very small number of centrifuges it has now operating as a face-saving measure, that there might still be a verifiable deal to be made. Whether the sides can reach that deal is a very difficult question.

INSKEEP: Mr. Bunn, are you saying that one effect of making this offer, from the U.S. point of view, is that if it later comes to military action, the U.S. can say, look, we tried everything we could short of war.

Mr. BUNN: Exactly. And not only military action, but also sanctions. I think it was very important in convincing Russia and China to allow steps at the Security Council that could lead in the direction of sanctions; and to acquiesce in those steps without using their vetoes to - for the United States to go the extra mile to allow negotiations to proceed.

INSKEEP: Does the United States have any leverage to force Iran to talk about an end to a nuclear weapons program?

Mr. BUNN: U.S. leverage is limited, but there is now, I think, very widespread consensus in the international community that Iran should not proceed - for now - with enrichment and re-processing. And I think there is a potential for increasing political and economic sanctions, as Secretary Rice spoke of, if Iran does not agree to re-suspend its activities. Whether those will be sufficient to cause Iran to change course, I don't know. Frankly, I think that Iran has a culture of resistance to foreign pressure and that more sweeteners are probably more important than more threats.

INSKEEP: Mr. Bunn, thanks very much.

MR. BUNN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Matthew Bunn, of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, speaking about the announcement today from the Bush administration. You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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