Russia proposed more talks to resolve differences over dealing with Iran's nuclear program as the five Security Council powers on Friday considered a statement to pressure Tehran to clear up questions about whether it is trying to build atomic weapons.
U.S. Ambassador John Bolton and other senior American officials have suggested that if the Security Council does not take tough action, Washington might look elsewhere to punish Iran — possibly by rallying its allies to impose targeted sanctions.
"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 Thursday. "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."
"We all have to get together again to collectively find a new consensus regarding our strategy at the current stage," Lavrov said in an interview with state television broadcast Thursday but published in full on the Foreign Ministry Web site on Friday.
The Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the exact format for the proposed talks.
However, Lavrov's call for IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei to be included as well as Germany — which along with France and Britain has negotiated with Tehran but is not a member of the Security Council — appeared to indicate he meant the talks should take place outside the framework of the U.N. body.
The U.S. was skeptical about the idea.
"It's an attempt to stop the referral to the Security Council and have more talks," said Richard Grenell, spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. "We've been talking for three years. At some point, the international community has to decide whether or not the IAEA resolutions and the U.N. Charter mean anything."
The United States and its allies believe Iran is seeking to develop atomic weapons, but Tehran denies the allegations, saying its nuclear program is solely for generating electricity.
The five permanent Security council members, who wield veto power, 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.
Diplomats 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.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he would not be opposed to the Russian proposal for more talks with Iran, but he expected the Security Council to issue a presidential statement first. "Then, we'll see," Steinmeier told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Salzburg, Austria.
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.
"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," Bolton said. "So we have a responsibility in the council to try and deal with that threat."
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.
In an attempt to stave off sanctions against Iran, Russia proposed to host Iran's uranium enrichment program in an offer backed by both the U.S. and the EU as a way to tighten controls over the Iranian atomic program.
But talks on the issue have stalled over Iran's staunch refusal to re-impose a moratorium on domestic enrichment activity — a condition that accompanied the Russian offer.
"Yes, the situation is critical, including because of the position of the Iranian leadership, which we do not approve of," Lavrov said. "But it does not mean that everybody now has to go to the Security Council and start to issue calls, threaten and put such threats into effect."
Britain, also a proponent of tough action, has proposed asking ElBaradei to report back in two weeks on Iran's compliance with IAEA resolutions. But Russia's Ambassador Andrey Denisov said Thursday that 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.
"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 told AP Television News.
Top EU officials stressed Friday that a diplomatic solution over Iran's nuclear program is still possible, but also appeared to leave open the possibility of Tehran being hit by sanctions.
"Everything is on the table, everything is open," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said when asked about a report in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard in which he was quoted as saying that sanctions cannot be excluded.