EN ROUTE TO THE UNITED STATES – Warning of a "slow erosion of the credibility of the international community," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice challenged the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday to take action against Iran if it does not reverse its nuclear program in the next few weeks.
"Without some movement forward, I think the international community would be rightly asked: How long before there is going to be a consequence for Iran continuing to ignore the demands of the international community?" Rice told reporters aboard her plane en route to Washington after attending the London Conference on Afghanistan.
Rice's comments came the day after she and her counterparts on the Security Council ended a four-hour negotiating session — at 1 a.m. local time — in unanimous agreement that they should vote in concert to support the referral, or "reporting," of Iran's case to that body. That is expected to come at Thursday's special session in Vienna of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency .
In exchange for its agreement to support Iran's referral, a step long sought by the United States and its European allies, Russia extracted a concession that allows the Security Council to take no action until after another IAEA meeting in early March.
"We were prepared to be sensitive to their sense of timing of when this ought to be taken up in the Security Council," Rice said.
But the secretary confirmed what a senior Bush administration official said shortly after the conclusion of last night's marathon negotiation at the London residence of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw — that the diplomats could not agree on what, if anything, the Security Council should do when it starts actively considering the situation in March.
"I don't underestimate the difficulty of maintaining consensus as we move through this process," Rice said. "I expect that there will continue to be tactical differences about timing and there may even be tactical differences about precisely what is required. But that's the hard work of the diplomacy."
Iran insists its nuclear program, largely concealed from the IAEA for almost two decades until its exposure by dissident groups in 2002, is geared purely toward civilian energy production. The United States and EU-3, comprised of Britain, France and Germany, accuse Tehran of secretly trying to build nuclear weapons. In recent months, as negotiations aimed at getting the Iranians to forswear uranium enrichment failed, the hard-line Islamic regime in Tehran has resumed a number of nuclear activities it previously agreed to suspend, including the conversion of uranium ore, or yellowcake, into hexaflouride gas, a key step in the development of nuclear energy and weaponry.
Rice, who was attending President Bush's State of the Union on Tuesday night, shrugged off threats by Iranian leaders who vowed that referral of their country to the Security Council would spell the end of all IAEA oversight of their nuclear program.
"The eyes and ears that are there are watching the Iranians progress along a path toward the technologies that could lead to a nuclear weapon," she said. "So, you know, sitting and having the IAEA watch the Iranians break seals, having the Iranians — watching the Iranians start reprocessing and enrichment, I assume — seeing the Iranians start to introduce the gas — I suppose there's some value in seeing that, but ... what the IAEA is watching is the slow erosion of the credibility of the international community, as the Iranians take step after step after step in defiance" of the world community.
Rice said the IAEA's Feb. 2 session will also produce a list of actions the Iranians must take to stave off Security Council action, which could extend to sanctions or even military action. She said it is "only fair" for the United States and its allies to give Iran a chance over the "next few weeks" to take heed of what she called the "new reality" created by the Security Council's involvement.
The secretary went on to express deep skepticism that Iran would reverse its nuclear program, but declined to say what actions the Bush administration would ask the Security Council to take in the event her skepticism is merited.
"We will consider very carefully what steps are going to be effective in the isolation of the Iranian regime...and once you're in the Security Council and discussing this, there are a number of possibilities. But I don't want to get ahead of the diplomacy," she said.
Rice seemed to place only minimal hope in the viability of a longstanding Russian proposal to end the standoff, under which uranium enrichment would be performed on Russian soil, and the resulting nuclear fuel rods would be shipped to Iran for exclusively peaceful use.
"The Iranians haven't really been prepared to talk seriously about it because every time the Russian proposal comes up, they say it's inadequate," Rice said. "And what they mean by adequacy is it has to involve enrichment and reprocessing on Iranian soil, and that actually is not the Russian proposal. The Russian proposal is that this would be a joint venture in which the Iranians might have a financial stake but not a technological stake to learn the process of enrichment and reprocessing. So I think that if the Iranians were really prepared to seriously consider the Russian proposal, within the parameters that everybody is prepared to live with — which is no reprocessing and enrichment on Iranian soil — then there would need to be more sensitive discussions."
For the first time, the secretary also acknowledged the almost ethereal nature of the Russian proposal, which seems never to have been committed to paper, nor fleshed out in detail. "We have been discussing it orally with the Russians," Rice said. "We have gotten read-outs of their discussions. But again, since the Iranians have not yet shown that they are at all interested, let's even say, in the concept that this would be done all on Russian soil, it's somewhat retarded the development of the proposal."
Many of Rice's negotiating partners on the Iranian issue also sat across a table from her in London as part of the so-called Quartet — the group that has been trying for the last four years to advance the "road map" for Middle East peace and which includes the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. The Quartet issued a statement Monday in which its member states agreed to evaluate all future funding requests by the incoming Hamas government in the Palestinian Authority in accordance with Hamas' willingness to renounce its terrorist past, recognize Israel and accept the basic tenets of the road map, which envisions a two-state solution to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hamas immediately responded by criticizing the Quartet, saying its statement should have been directed at Israeli "occupation and aggression." Asked if a cut-off of funding to a Hamas government by Quartet members was now guaranteed, Rice demurred. "I think nothing is a foregone conclusion. I think it's a very fluid situation. I think Hamas has some difficult choices to make...(but) I think that the choice is very clear and the purpose of the Quartet statement was to make the choice very clear."
Asked about Jill Carroll, the American hostage in Iraq, Rice said: "Everything is being done to work with those who might have influence, and there are an awful lot of people calling for her release."
"It's everybody's hope and prayer that these people who took her, an innocent person who was just trying to report on these historic events, that they will release her," Rice said.