WASHINGTON—The United States and its European allies will not seek immediate U.N. sanctions on Iran, but will gradually step up pressure on the Islamic republic to refreeze uranium enrichment work and resume talks on its nuclear program.
The approach, in sharp contrast to the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq in 2003, is designed to persuade Russia and China to support hauling Iran before the U.N. Security Council for violating the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The treaty is the international accord designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
"We don't want to lose important countries down the road," said a European diplomat.
The graduated international effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons appears to reflect, among other things, Iran's importance as the world's fourth-largest oil supplier; its extensive commercial ties with China, Russia and other countries; the U.S. military's preoccupation with Iraq; the absence of any attractive military option in Iran; and the influence of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
European diplomats and U.S. officials discussed their strategy for resolving the crisis over Iran's nuclear program on Wednesday on the condition that they remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the diplomacy.
Moscow and Beijing refused earlier this week to join the United States, France, Germany and Britain in backing a referral of Iran to the Security Council, which could impose sanctions.
The International Atomic Energy Agency announced in Vienna, Austria, that the U.N. nuclear watchdog's 35-member board of governors would consider the matter at an emergency session on Feb. 2.
While it would take a simple majority of the board to report Iran to the Security Council, the Bush administration and its European partners are trying to gather as many votes as possible, especially those of China and Russia.
U.S. and European officials spurned an Iranian offer of new talks because it didn't include Tehran's promise to resume a more than two-year freeze on uranium enrichment work.
"It doesn't make much sense to have another meeting if there's nothing new in what they are going to put on the table," Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said during an appearance with Rice.
Britain, France and Germany, which were leading talks with Iran on its nuclear program, decided to seek the IAEA vote after Tehran on Jan. 10 ended its uranium enrichment research freeze in defiance of international warnings against doing so.
The process is used to make low enriched uranium for civilian power plants, which Iran says it's pursuing. The same method also can produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, which the Bush administration charges is the real Iranian goal.
The Security Council could slap sanctions on Iran for refusing to refreeze its uranium enrichment work and for continuing to spurn IAEA demands to disclose all aspects of its nuclear program, which it concealed for 18 years in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But American and European officials said there'd be no push for immediate sanctions.
"That is many, many months away," said a U.S. official.
Instead, U.S. and European officials are planning a strategy that would give Iran the choice at several stages of cooperating with the IAEA or facing increasing international isolation and opprobrium, said the U.S. and European officials.
In the first phase, the United States and its European partners would likely seek a statement by the Security Council president, a post that rotates monthly among the 15 members, that would find Iran in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The statement would reiterate the same demands that the IAEA board of governors issued in September: that Iran refreeze its uranium enrichment work and cooperate in the more than three-year-old IAEA investigation into its nuclear program.
A presidential statement doesn't carry the force of international law.
"We are really working on Russia and China to make clear to Iran that they need to stop the enrichment activity that they are now doing," said the U.S. official.
Should Iran ignore a presidential statement, the United States and the Europeans would consider seeking a Security Council resolution that would find Iran's behavior a threat to international security and repeat the IAEA's demands.
Such a resolution would carry the weight of international law.
Only after Iran flouted such a resolution would U.S. and European officials seek sanctions. But unlike the economic sanctions that the United Nations imposed on Iraq, the sanctions would be targeted only at members of Iran's theocratic regime and its nuclear program and wouldn't involve measures that could hurt ordinary Iranians.
Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed such targeted sanctions when they met at the White House last week, said a senior German diplomat, who asked not to be further identified.
The pair considered "the question of the smartest possible sanctions" that would hurt Iran's leaders but not cause Iranians to rally around the regime, he said.
Broad trade sanctions also likely would spook China, which is increasingly dependent on Iran to meet its enormous energy needs.
Targeted sanctions could include travel bans on Iranian officials, limiting travel of Iranian diplomats in the nations where they serve, and measures against the wealthy foundations run by leading clerics.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAN-NUCLEAR
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