VIENNA, Austria — Leading European nations on Wednesday stopped short of endorsing a United Nations plan to ease tensions over Iran's nuclear program, and the United States called a six-nation meeting next week to discuss imposing tougher U.N. sanctions on Iran's government.
The deal struck last month between Iran and the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency calls on Tehran to answer questions about its past nuclear activities. But it doesn't demand that Iran stop enriching uranium, as Western nations have demanded.
At a special meeting of the IAEA's Board of Governors here, European nations offered tepid support for the deal.
They expressed concern that Iran might use the deal struck by IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei to delay resolving questions about its ongoing uranium enrichment program, which many suspect is aimed at developing nuclear weapons.
U.S. officials are frustrated that ElBaradei, an Egyptian who won a Nobel Peace Prize for trying to mediate the Iran dispute, negotiated a deal with Tehran that fell short of past U.N. demands.
In this week's meetings, ElBaradei urged the adoption of a "double timeout" by Iran and the international community. Under that plan, Iran would suspend uranium enrichment and the international community would suspend the sanctions it's already imposed.
ElBaradei said such a "timeout" would open "the way to go into a comprehensive negotiation."
"If the IAEA verifies that Iran has entirely suspended enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, we would support the suspension of (U.N.) sanctions," said a joint statement by Britain, France and Germany, which have led European diplomacy on the issue.
The statement, however, added that Iran's adherence to the work plan negotiated with ElBaradei would be a "litmus test of Iran's willingness to constructively cooperate with the IAEA."
U.S. representative Gregory Schulte gave the IAEA plan a tepid welcome, but said that if Iran suspends uranium enrichment, Washington, too, would back a halt to sanctions.
"We will see if Iran is really serious," he said. "We will see if Iran attempts to dole out cooperation as it sees fit to avoid additional consequences for failing to meet its international obligations.
"To be honest, the United States fears that Iran has no intention of coming clean to the IAEA, but rather seeks to delay further United Nations Security Council action while forging ahead developing bomb-making capabilities," Schulte said.
Meanwhile, the State Department announced that representatives of six nations would meet in Washington next week in an attempt to agree on tougher sanctions on Iran.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is leading a diplomatic effort aimed at pressuring Iran to drop its uranium enrichment. Critics of the strategy, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, argue that it's doomed to fail and are pushing for consideration of air attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities and perhaps alleged terrorist training camps.
Administration officials said Wednesday that President Bush has decided to designate Iran's Quds Force, part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a terrorist group. Some U.S. officials had argued for going after the entire IRGC, one of Iran's most powerful institutions.
Discussions over a new U.N. Security Council resolution imposing new sanctions on Iran have bogged down repeatedly in the face of resistance from China and Russia.
Germany is also unenthusiastic about new sanctions. But Ulrich Sante, a spokesman for the German Embassy in Washington, denied a broadcast news report that Germany has informed its partners that it would oppose any further economic sanctions on Iran.
Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltaneh, said that his nation had never been found to be pursuing anything but a peaceful nuclear program. The same machinery that enriches uranium for peaceful purposes enriches it for military purposes (though the military process is much more intensive). He blamed "the politically motivated actions by a few countries" for the deadlock.
He added: "Any development outside the framework of the IAEA which can undermine the agency's authorities and professionalism . . . shall impede seriously the new constructive process and even might destroy the trend."
(Jonathan S. Landay contributed.)
� McClatchy Newspapers 2007