BRUSSELS, Belgium – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Iran on Thursday the "international community is united" in the dispute over its nuclear program, but a Tehran envoy defiantly rejected a U.N. call to reimpose a freeze on uranium enrichment.
Rice spoke after a meeting in Berlin as deputies from the United States, Russia, China and Europe discussed what kind of pressure to bring on Iran to get it to compromise on its suspect nuclear activities.
The meeting follows agreement Wednesday by the 15-member Security Council to ask the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to report back in 30 days on Iran's compliance with demands to stop enriching uranium.
The council statement takes into account Russian and Chinese reservations about too much toughness, while meeting U.S., French and British calls for keeping the pressure on Tehran.
It "notes with serious concern" Iran's decision to resume activities related to uranium enrichment and limit access to IAEA inspectors. It also calls on Iran to return to "full and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related ... activities."
Rice called the statement an "important diplomatic step" that showed the international community's concern about Iran. Before meeting with her counterparts, she was consulting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"We are very close today to taking the first major step in the Security Council to deal with Iran's nearly 20-year-old clandestine nuclear weapons program," John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in New York. "It sends an unmistakable message to Iran that its efforts to deny the obvious fact of what it's doing are not going to be sufficient."
Iran remained defiant, maintaining its right to nuclear power but insisting that it had no intention of seeking weapons of mass destruction.
On Thursday, Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki condemned "unjustified propaganda" about its peaceful nuclear program. "Iran's nuclear program is peaceful and has never diverted towards prohibited activities," Mottaki told the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.
But, he added, Iran is willing to continue talks with the IAEA over its nuclear program.
"We are willing to continue with negotiations and also continue with our sincere and constructive cooperation with the agency," Mottaki told reporters after the conference session. "Our cooperation with the agency will continue."
Security Council members described the statement, while not legally binding, as a first step to pressure Iran to make clear its program is for peaceful purposes. It also calls on Iran to ratify the IAEA's additional protocol, which allows unannounced inspections.
The Security Council could eventually impose economic sanctions, though Russia and China say they oppose such tough measures.
The Europeans initially proposed a much stronger statement but accepted a milder one to secure the support of Russia and China. Western countries agreed to drop language that proliferation "constitutes a threat to international peace and security." Also gone is a mention that the council is specifically charged under the U.N. charter with addressing such threats.
Russia and China had opposed that language because they wanted nothing in the statement that could automatically trigger council action after 30 days.
"For the time being we have suspicions," Russia's U.N. Ambassador Andrey Denisov said. "So from that point of view, it is like a ladder. If you want to climb up, you must step on the first step, and then the second, and not try to leap."
The West has refused to rule out sanctions, and U.S. officials have said the threat of military action must also remain on the table.
Negotiations between Iran and France, Germany and Britain collapsed in August after Tehran rejected a package of incentives offered in return for a permanent end to uranium enrichment. Its moves to develop full-blown enrichment capabilities led the IAEA's board to ask for Security Council involvement.
Beyond giving formal blessings for the council statement — and using it to reflect a show of unity — Rice and the ministers from France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany were not likely to accomplish much at Thursday's meeting formally set to last only 90 minutes.
While the officials were expected to touch on ways to engage Iran diplomatically, major differences persist on that approach.
In a confidential letter earlier this month, Britain argued for including the other permanent Security Council members in talks with Iran. In exchange, they hoped to secure Russian and Chinese support for increasing pressure on Iran through binding council resolutions that could be enforced militarily.
A senior European official said on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to the media that Britain's "proposal is not off the table." But a U.S. official, who also requested anonymity for the same reason, said Washington opposed including more countries in the negotiations.
"From the beginning, our position has been that we don't think it's helpful to have other countries joining the EU-3 in the dialogue because it has the potential of diluting the Western position on Iran," he said.
The U.S. official did not, however, rule out direct discussions between the United States and Iran, suggesting they could be a spinoff of the U.S. administration's decision earlier this month to talk to Iran about Iraq after a nearly three-decade break in diplomatic ties.
The U.S. administration has publicly emphasized those talks would not touch on the nuclear issue. But the official said that "if some understanding emerges from those discussions, then the one side or the other might say, 'Let's have some follow-up.'"