The United States views Iran's disputed nuclear weapons program as a test for the U.N. Security Council that should be addressed urgently but in a cautious and deliberate manner, U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said.
The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are scheduled to hold their second closed-door meeting Friday to discuss a proposed response to the Iranian nuclear crisis. The Americans hoped the statement could be adopted next week.
"We are going to press for as vigorous a response in the council as we can get, and hope that that gets the Iranians' attentions," Bolton said. "This is a test for the council. And if the Iranians do not back off from their continued aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons, we will have to make a decision of what the next step will be."
Bolton and other senior U.S. officials suggested Thursday that if the Security Council does not take tough action, the United States might look elsewhere to punish Iran — possibly by rallying its allies to impose targeted sanctions.
"We're confronted with a threat here as Iran pursues not only nuclear weapons, but the capability through increasingly longer-range and more accurate ballistic missiles ... that is obviously very, very dangerous," he said. "So we have a responsibility in the council to try and deal with that threat."
Security Council members have indicated they will move slowly, focusing initially on a presidential statement that will likely ask Iran to comply with demands by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog. The agency triggered council action by sending a Feb. 27 report on Iran's activities to the council.
Officials in Washington have raised the possibility of a Security Council resolution backed by the threat of military force that would demand Iran abandon uranium enrichment and answer outstanding questions about its nuclear program. The United States also wants the statement to include some condemnation of Iran.
But Russia and China, which have closer ties to Iran, oppose sanctions on principle and fear that tough council action will lead Iran to abandon the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty for good and expel IAEA inspectors.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned after meeting U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Wednesday that having no inspectors to keep an eye on Iran's nuclear activities would be a serious mistake.
Britain, also a proponent of tough action, has proposed asking International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed Elbaradei to report back in two weeks on Iran's compliance with IAEA resolutions. But Russia's Ambassador Andrey Denisov said this would not give Tehran enough time.
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry said the council should respond quickly and urge Iran to meet the IAEA's requirements. "It would demonstrate the Security Council's support for the agency," he told Assciated Press Television News.
"If the Iranians meet the requirements of the (IAEA) government board then there's no activity here, no need for the Security Council to be involved," he said.
But if Iran does not meet the IAEA demands, officials in Washington have raised the possibility of a Security Council resolution backed by the threat of military force that would demand Iran abandon uranium enrichment and answer outstanding questions about its nuclear program. The United States also wants the statement to include some condemnation of Iran.
At a Senate hearing on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested that the international community could impose visa restrictions and an asset freeze. She said that investors may take "a second look at whether investments in Iran are really a good idea under the circumstances."
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy urged Iran on Friday to return rapidly to "reason."
"The hand is extended. Negotiations are possible," Douste-Blazy said on RTL radio. "Iran must understand that it has no choice. It has the right to civilian nuclear energy, it does not have the right to something else."