An alleged nuclear facility in Natanz, Iran, is seen in this satellite photo.
High-level representatives from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia are planning to meet in London on Friday to assess Tehran's defiant refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. They are expected to refer the Iranian nuclear case to the U.N. Security Council, which will start discussing possible sanctions on Iran next week, diplomats said Thursday.
Russia's foreign minister, however, said he believes it is too soon to impose sanctions and that further efforts are needed to push Iran to negotiate.
To avoid alienating the Russians and the Chinese, any sanctions are likely to be relatively mild, including embargoes on missile and nuclear technology, and possible travel bans and other penalties on Iranian officials involved in their country's nuclear program.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reiterated Thursday his country would not be frightened by threats to impose sanctions.
"Those who threaten Iran by sanctions and embargo should know that this nation lived under the hardest situation in the past 27 years and achieved nuclear technology. This nation will not be frightened by the threats," state-run television quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.
Iran insists that its enrichment of uranium is purely for peaceful purposes to be used for nuclear energy. But the United States and many European nations believe Iran wants to enrich uranium to produce nuclear weapons.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett and French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy were to attend the London meeting, the British Foreign Office and France's foreign ministry said. However, State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington that the U.S. would be represented by Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns.
Germany, Russia and China will also send high-level officials to the talks, scheduled for 5 p.m. Of the six nations at the meeting, only Germany is not a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
The officials were likely to confirm that the European-Iranian talks aimed at persuading Tehran to suspend its enrichment program are at a standstill, a senior U.N. Security Council diplomat said. They will also probably issue a statement referring the case back to the Council and listing the principles on which they agree, according to the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because talks were still taking place.
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry said he expects "the Iran dossier" to return to the council "in the course of next week." He said Britain "will be discussing with its partners and with members of the council the basis for action by the council to adopt measures under Article 41 against Iran."
Article 41 authorizes the Security Council to impose sanctions that do not involve the use of armed forces -- such as economic penalties, breaking diplomatic relations or banning air travel.
Iran was initially referred to the Security Council in February by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, which said Tehran's suspicious activities represented breaches of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Vienna-based agency also said it could not be sure Iran was not trying to make weapons.
The council gave Iran until Aug. 31 to suspend enrichment in return for a package of incentives or face punishments under Article 41, but the council has held off on any action because of talks between European foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Iran's top negotiator Ali Larijani.
Solana conceded Wednesday that "endless hours" of talks with Larijani had made little progress and suggested the dispute could wind up at the U.N. soon. But he stressed Thursday that dialogue with Iran must continue even if nuclear talks fail.
"I think that even if we fail now we should keep the doors open for dialogue with Iran," Solana said in Rome, where he was meeting top Italian officials. "We shall not spare any effort to try to move forward when it is possible. It is not possible at the moment, but that doesn't mean it will not be possible later."
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow remains opposed to sanctions against Iran at this time.
"Some members of the six nations already want to impose sanctions against Iran. We, however, think first we must continue multilateral actions," he said.
"I think that until all diplomatic possibilities have been exhausted, sanctions would be extreme," Lavrov told reporters in Warsaw after meeting with his Polish counterpart. "I think we need to do all we can to push Iran toward starting negotiations."
Later, he accused the United States of "complicating" the six-nation talks with Iran.
"Unfortunately, the unilateral American law complicates the work of the sextet in a collective format," Lavrov was quoted as saying by Interfax on his return to Moscow. "It was agreed that we would do everything together, including the analysis of the situation and working out measures of action."
Lavrov did not elaborate, but he was apparently referring to legislation signed by President Bush on Sept. 30 toughening unilateral sanctions on Tehran. The new law imposes mandatory sanctions on entities that provide goods or services for Iran's weapons program.
The House of Representatives had debated the wisdom of strengthening U.S. sanctions while Washington was trying to work in the U.N. on a multinational approach to Iran's nuclear threat.
On Tuesday, diplomats said Western council members -- the United States, Britain and France -- favor an embargo on sales of nuclear or missile technology to Tehran as a first sanctions step. That would be followed by other sanctions, including travel bans on Iranian officials and the freezing of their assets.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said Thursday any measures against Iran must be "progressive, proportionate and reversible" without specifying what those steps might be.