WASHINGTON — Amid concern that the U.S. is drifting toward eventual confrontation with Iran, a growing number of influential statesmen, Republican senators and foreign policy experts are stepping up pressure on the Bush administration to consider doing what no U.S. administration has done in 27 years: talk directly with Iran.
In recent congressional hearings, think-tank conferences, op-ed essays and media appearances, Republican heavyweights -- including former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) -- have publicly urged the administration to leave the current path of escalation and join European allies in direct talks with Tehran.
The public campaign parallels private efforts by GOP insiders, foreign policy specialists and U.S. allies abroad to influence the thinking of key administration officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Elliott Abrams, who oversees Iran policy at the National Security Council. Both have met recently with foreign diplomats and outside experts and have discussed U.S. diplomacy with Iran.
"I think the administration is gradually and with some reluctance moving in the right direction," said a central figure in the Republican foreign policy establishment who is trying to shift the administration's stance.
"But I don't think they are taking initiatives now. I think they are being dragged."
The administration's stance toward Iran, refusing direct talks while allowing other nations to negotiate, has paid few dividends and could add to the unpopularity of future sanctions or military action, the foreign policy expert said.
But the administration may be forced to change as a result of "pressure from Europeans, from the Russians, and the general sense that they are just on a wicket they can't sustain there," the expert said.
As pressure on the White House intensified in the last week, there were signs of slight but significant shifts in the administration position.
Press Secretary Tony Snow repeated the administration's refusal to consider direct talks but said things could change if Iran suspended its uranium enrichment efforts and committed to halting them permanently.
"When that happens, all right, then there may be some opportunities," Snow said.
On May 8, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wrote a 17-page letter asking Bush for direct talks.
In Snow's comments last week, analysts said they detected the outlines of a U.S. counterproposal about conditions for possible talks.
A decision to talk to the Iranians would be a dramatic departure from the administration's strategy of isolating the Tehran regime. Critics of engagement, including Vice President Dick Cheney and influential neoconservatives, say such talks would legitimize a duplicitous regime and represent a blow to Iranian human rights activists and dissidents.
The Bush administration has sought to support anti-regime efforts.
Such hawkish voices have dominated in the administration and Congress, but a perceptible recent shift seems to favor Republican foreign policy "realists" and moderates.
Pressure for talks involving the United States began to build after the collapse of a Russian-sponsored compromise on Iranian nuclear enrichment this year and after disagreement in the last month within the U.N. Security Council on the best approach.
"Some of the E.U. members were nervous that things were really going downhill very fast and headed to military confrontation," said one nongovernmental energy consultant knowledgeable about the internal debate. "When [the Russia proposal] failed, all bets were off. And that prompted thinking that there has got to be another way."
Visiting German officials urged the administration to hold direct talks in April, and Rice has met with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who favors greater U.S. involvement.
Lugar held two days of testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month featuring speaker after speaker who proposed some form of dialogue.
"The witnesses generally shared the view that no diplomatic options, including direct talks, should be taken off the table," Lugar said. "Direct talks may in some circumstances be useful to demonstrating to our allies our commitment to diplomacy [and] reducing the risk of accidental escalation."
Kissinger and Hagel have called for talks.
Proponents of such talks point out that even in the case of North Korea -- which, like Iran, Bush considers a rogue state -- U.S. officials have taken a place at the bargaining table with representatives of other nations, in some cases speaking to their adversaries in person.