WASHINGTON—The United States and Europe launched a new push for sanctions against Iran on Wednesday, after the European Union's envoy reported that four months of nuclear talks have failed to persuade Tehran to halt its uranium enrichment program.
The envoy, Javier Solana, stopped short of declaring his talks dead, but senior U.S. officials said that the effort had failed and that it was time to make good on a threat to punish Iran if it didn't halt suspected nuclear weapons work.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveling in the Middle East, said the United States favors "bringing to a close the open-ended negotiations with the Iranians ... It's become quite evident that that's what we're going to have to do."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday again rejected suspending uranium enrichment.
"You are mistaken if you assume that the Iranian nation will stop for even a moment from the path toward using nuclear energy, due to your nagging," he was quoted as telling a crowd of supporters in Iran.
Initial sanctions against Iran would include travel restrictions and financial measures against Iranian government officials, along with curbs on trade in technology that could benefit Iran's nuclear research, U.S. and foreign diplomats have said. U.S. and European officials want to avoid imposing sanctions that would hurt the Iranian people and cause them to direct their anger at the West rather than at their own government.
Still, it remains far from clear whether Russia and China, which have balked at sanctions on Iran, will go along with even carefully targeted sanctions—or whether the measures will persuade Iran to change course. Iran denies that it's seeking nuclear weapons, but it insists on its right to enrich uranium for civilian nuclear power.
Russia and China haven't agreed to meet with Rice and her European colleagues this weekend to discuss next steps on Iran, U.S. and European diplomats said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the negotiations' sensitivity.
Solana's report that his "endless hours" of negotiations had proved fruitless was the second blow in as many days to U.S. efforts to stop two members of President Bush's "axis of evil"—Iran and North Korea—from acquiring or expanding nuclear arsenals.
North Korea, which is believed to have enough plutonium for four to 13 nuclear devices, announced on Tuesday that it would conduct its first underground nuclear test, sparking alarm in northeast Asia and beyond.
The United States is pushing for a strong response, such as a deadline for North Korea to rescind the threat, return to a moratorium on ballistic missile launches and rejoin international talks on its nuclear program.
But China, North Korea's main ally, and other members of the U.N. Security Council want more talks, diplomats said.
"At this stage I think there is division" on dealing with North Korea, said John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
With the Bush administration already challenged by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the simultaneous nuclear crises pose a growing challenge for American diplomacy.
Two State Department officials said Wednesday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il may have ordered the dramatic nuclear test announcement out of pique that Iran's nuclear ambitions were dominating international attention.
Others, including European Union envoy Solana, noted that Kim's move coincided with a straw poll cementing the candidacy of a South Korean, Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon, as the next secretary-general of the United Nations.
And in a further mingling of the two nuclear crises, China is reluctant to agree to U.N. sanctions on Iran because it fears that doing so would create a precedent for sanctions on North Korea, diplomats said.
On Iran, Bush has repeatedly said he won't rule out using U.S. military force to stop Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
While U.S. intelligence agencies don't expect Iran to master nuclear weapons technology for several years, some Bush administration hawks favor using overt and covert measures to topple Ahmadinejad's regime.
"If we failed and Rice failed with us" in trying to use diplomacy, the arguments of hardliners in Washington would be strengthened, said one of the European diplomats.
For its part, Iran appears to be betting that the United States, the European Union, Russia and China won't remain united and carry through on repeated threats of sanctions.
Discussions on sanctions aren't expected to begin at the United Nations until next week at the earliest, the U.S. and European diplomats said.
As a hedge against the possibility that only weak U.N. sanctions will be agreed, the United States is pushing other countries to cut their financial ties with Iran. The Treasury Department recently barred one large Iranian bank from operating in American financial markets.
But Rice, in her Middle East travels, appears to have gotten only a polite reception from Sunni Muslim Arab countries for a united front against Shiite, Persian Iran.
"For the United States not to talk to Iran is a mistake," Saudi Arabia's ambassador, Prince Turki al-Faisal, said Wednesday in Washington.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map