The Bush administration said Friday it sees a changed atmosphere with regard to possible international action against Iran, following Tehran's claims in recent days of advances in its nuclear program. The United States is urging countries to halt sales of arms and advanced technology to Iran to slow its drive for nuclear weapons.
U.S. officials concede there was no tactical agreement on how to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions during this week's talks in Moscow, involving senior diplomats of the five permanent U.N. Security Council member countries and the G-8 industrial powers.
However, they say there is now an international consensus that punitive action must be taken, following Iran's revelations since last week that it has made strides in uranium enrichment, including harnessing a cascade of 164 centrifuges that could lead to enrichment on an industrial scale.
At a news briefing, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, the lead U.S. delegate in Moscow, said he was struck by what he said was a changed atmosphere and a new sense of urgency about Iran among the veto-wielding Security Council members, including Russia and China, following Tehran's nuclear claims:
"I can't predict where the Security Council will be a month from today," said Mr. Burns. "But my sense is that the Iranians have miscalculated again. And its high-profile announcement last week with the President of Iran, and holding up, you know, the product of what they've done in the enrichment process has backfired on them. I sensed real concern on the part of Russia and China, as to what the Iranians are up to. Now, let's see if we can translate that into effective action at the Security Council, to preserve the credibility of the Security Council, which is what is at stake here."
Burns, the State Department's third ranking official, said he would meet again with other ranking officials from the permanent Security Council countries and Germany in Paris May 2 to try to reach agreement on specific diplomatic steps against Iran.
In the meantime, he said, concerned countries should stop selling Iran advanced weapons and so-called dual-use high technology equipment that could help its nuclear program. In particular, he urged Russia to cancel its planned sale to Iran of Tor anti-aircraft missiles, despite Moscow's insistence Thursday that the sale would proceed.
"It just doesn't stand to reason that Russia would continue with arms sales, particularly of the type envisioned, Tor missiles, to Iran," he added. "Iran is a country that is violating every international agreement that it's made on the nuclear issue, both with the IAEA, and now with the Security Council. It's not complying with the statements of the Security Council. We know what it's doing, in terms of its, now, more-aggressive policy in its own region. So, we'll continue to work at it."
Burns said he expected an effort in the Security Council next month to pass a binding resolution under Chapter Seven of the U.N. Charter demanding that Iran cease uranium enrichment and return to negotiations over its nuclear program.
He said, even if efforts for a binding resolution and sanctions in the Security Council fail, countries could individually and in groups impose penalties against Iran, citing the European Union's readiness to invoke travel and other targeted sanctions against the Tehran leadership.
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful. But Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph, who joined Burns at the press event, said Tehran is driving toward a nuclear weapons capability with, in his words, both feet on the accelerator:
"This is likely the greatest strategic threat that we face as a nation, that faces the international community," said Mr. Joseph. "A nuclear armed Iran is something that we simply cannot tolerate. This is a sense that is shared very widely by most states. A nuclear armed Iran would represent, I think, a direct threat, not only to us, and not only to countries in the region, but to the entire nuclear non-proliferation regime."
Undersecretary Joseph, who discussed the Iranian issue in a tour of Gulf states last week, said a nuclear-armed Iran would among other things be emboldened to take more aggressive actions in support of terrorism.
He said, every tool the United States has at its disposal -- diplomatic, economic, intelligence and others -- needs to be brought to bear against that threat.
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