BRUSSELS, Belgium – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday the United States would continue along a two-track strategy to deal with Iran, pressing for new sanctions and demanding Tehran come clean about its nuclear program while offering talks to sweeten the deal. But Russia ignored her calls to punish Iran.
Despite strong support from NATO allies in the wake of a new U.S. intelligence report that concludes Iran actually stopped atomic weapons development in 2003, the top U.S. diplomat was unable to persuade Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the urgency of fresh sanctions.
Rice said her talks with Lavrov were "an extension of other conversations we have had," suggesting the two didn't see eye to eye.
"So it was a continuation of that discussion and a recommitment to our two-track approach," Rice said at a news conference, referring to sanctions and diplomacy.
Rice was explaining the U.S. reevaluation of the Iranian threat during annual meetings at NATO's Belgium headquarters. She also spent two days here galvanizing support for a U.S.-led drive for a third, tougher set of U.N. Security Council sanctions on the clerical regime. The sanctions are meant to force Iran to roll back elements of a nuclear program it claims is peaceful but that the United States and its allies have said could lead to a bomb.
The latest U.S. intelligence assessment appears to undermine the Bush administration's claim that Iran is driving toward a bomb and thus poses an urgent threat. Rice and other U.S. officials insist that Iran remains a danger and they note that it could restart a shelved program using technology and materials it is still amassing.
After seeing Rice at NATO, Lavrov told reporters: "It fully confirms the information that we have: that there is no military element in their nuclear program. We hope very much that these negotiations with Iran will continue."
The question is really not whether to continue negotiations — a process that has so far yielded nothing — but whether Russia and fellow Security Council holdout China will agree that further coercive sanctions are the best way to persuade Iran to really bargain during those talks.
The European-led talks could offer Iran a package of incentives including civilian nuclear cooperation in return for a shutdown of uranium enrichment and reprocessing. Talks have never gotten off the ground because of U.S. and European insistence that Iran suspend that disputed uranium work while talking. Iran has refused.
Lavrov, who has become the public face of opposition to the U.S. and European sanctions strategy, has maintained Russia has no evidence that Tehran had ever had a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of international treaty obligations.
He did not discuss what Rice had told him.
His comments were not unexpected given past Russian statements on the issue, but nevertheless dealt a setback to efforts to boost pressure on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities with a new U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution.
China, another key participant in the so-called "P5+1" group of world powers now trying to craft such a resolution, is also resisting. The P5+1 includes the five permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — plus Germany.
Apart from China and Russia, the others have endorsed upping pressure on Iran since the release on Monday of the new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which represented a surprising turnaround in Washington's assessment of Iranian intentions.
President Bush and Rice have argued that the report actually shows that Iran is susceptible to outside influence on its nuclear program because it finds that Tehran stopped its weaponization attempts four years ago in response to diplomatic pressure.
"It was international pressure that got the Iranians to halt their program," Rice said ahead of her talks with Lavrov. "This suggests that you ought to keep up that international pressure."
Her meetings in Belgium were her first face-to-face exchanges on the matter since the intelligence report became public.
Rice saw Lavrov after having won NATO backing to stay the course.
"There was unanimity around the table that there is a clear choice for Iran," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters.
"Iran can see the outstretched hand from the international community if they are willing to join the drive against proliferation," he said. "But if Iran persists on defying the will of the United Nations Security Council, then there must be further sanctions."
The U.S. has been successful in leading two rounds of U.N. sanctions against Iran and is pushing for a third set of economic sanctions if the country refuses to suspend uranium enrichment.
In addition to her NATO meetings and session with Lavrov, Rice also saw Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Brussels.
Israel believes Iran is still working aggressively to build nuclear arms, despite the new U.S. conclusions and a senior Israeli defense official said Friday the Jewish state supports diplomacy but suggested it would still consider a military strike against Iran.
The Islamic regime in Tehran strongly opposes Israel's existence and frequently boasts of its ability to strike the Jewish state with long-range missiles.