The Bush administration said Wednesday it sees no sign that Iran will meet a U.N. deadline to curb its nuclear program and pushed for international sanctions.
"If they do not meet the requirements of the U.N. Security Council resolution, then we would expect that the parties would immediately begin formal discussions about a resolution that would call for sanctions," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
He spoke one day before the U.N. deadline for Iran to stop uranium enrichment.
"They've said that they don't intend to comply, and we'll see if they pull a rabbit out of the hat," he said. "I don't think anybody expects that at the moment."
Diplomats from the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Iran negotiating partner Germany, will meet next week in Europe to begin work toward sanctions, McCormack said.
He described a graduated approach that could take weeks or months, with lesser penalties applied to Tehran as a first step. He would not give a specific menu of possible penalties, but U.S. and European diplomats have suggested that some new limits on Iranian exports and travel by its government officials could be approved with relative ease.
"We think that this first resolution should send a substantial signal to the Iranian regime that this is serious business and that the international community means what it says," McCormack said.
Britain's U.N. ambassador said this week the Security Council will need until mid-September before acting on its threat to punish Iran.
It is not clear how far the effort will go. Russia and China, which can veto action at the Security Council, have counseled patience and said they do not support severe punishments.
If Iran misses the deadline, then talks should begin about how to implement steps previously agreed upon by foreign ministers, including those of Russia and China, said John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.
The United States has sought economic and political sanctions on Iran for some two years and has slowly built an international coalition to do so. The Bush administration has argued that targeted sanctions could be persuasive because they would pinch Iran financially and bruise the national ego.
Iran's president urged Europe against following the lead of the United States, saying Wednesday that punishment would not deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear program.
"So it's better for Europe to be independent in decision-making and to settle problems through negotiations," hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, according to Iranian state-run television.
Iran has continued enriching uranium despite the threat of U.N. sanctions and a looming deadline to freeze such operations, U.N. and European officials said Wednesday.
Enriched uranium can be used in civilian nuclear reactions or, at greater purity, in an atomic warhead.
Iran insists it has a right to enrich uranium for what it says is a future nuclear power program. The United States and other nations contend that Tehran is trying to build nuclear weapons.
Iranian defiance on enrichment will be detailed in a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency due Thursday.
The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany offered Iran a package of technological and political incentives June 1 in exchange for Tehran's commitment to freeze enrichment before talks began.
Tehran responded Aug. 21 in what heads of governments and senior diplomats have characterized as an inadequate counteroffer that will be rejected.