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Rice seeks common front to deter Iranian nuclear ambitions

MOSCOW—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is meeting with three top European leaders this weekend in a renewed effort to form a common front that might dissuade Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Rice sought agreement on new steps to deter Iran in talks Friday in Paris with ailing French President Jacques Chirac. She'll meet in Moscow on Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country is helping Iran build a civilian nuclear plant, and then will fly to Britain to confer with Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The apparent aim of the diplomacy is to reach agreement on what actions by Iran would trigger a referral to the U.N. Security Council and what penalties Tehran would face there.

U.S. officials traveling with Rice refused to disclose details of the discussions, citing the sensitivity of the talks. But French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, at a news conference with Rice, suggested that the idea is to offer to resume negotiations with Iran, while being more explicit about the consequences if Tehran moves ahead on the nuclear path.

"The option of the Security Council for the Iranians must be a sufficient deterrent to convince them to abandon their sensitive (nuclear) activities," Douste-Blazy said.

Some observers say Iran has little to fear from having its case sent to the United Nations, because Russia and China probably would block economic sanctions or other penalties using their vetoes in the Security Council.

The International Atomic Energy Agency's governing board approved a resolution last month declaring that Iran was out of compliance with its obligation not to develop nuclear weapons, but it delayed referring the matter to the Security Council. The delay was intended to give a chance for negotiations between Iran and the European Union, led by Britain, France and Germany.

Rice said, "We hope that the Iranians will return to the table, discuss with the EU-3 what negotiated solution might be there. But one thing that is very clear is the Security Council is an option."

Iran says it has the right to enrich uranium as fuel for nuclear power and denies that it's seeking nuclear weapons.

The United States and the European three say Iran shouldn't take even preparatory steps, such as converting uranium ore into a gas that can then be enriched to make fuel for nuclear weapons.

Russia also opposes Iran's getting nuclear weapons, but it's unclear where Moscow draws a "red line" that Iran mustn't cross.

Rice's effort to build a common front in advance represents a shift from the U.S. foreign-policy approach in President Bush's first term, when the United States frequently split with allies on major issues, such as Iraq.

She also conferred with her colleagues on how to deal with Syria if, as expected, U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis determines in a report later this month that the Damascus government had a role in the February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RICE-IRAN

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