U.S. Has Votes on Iran, Rice Says

"The Iranians are digging their own hole of isolation deeper and deeper," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at a breakfast with reporters. (By Yuri Gripas -- Reuters)
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 6, 2006

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that the United States and its European allies have the votes to bring Iran before the U.N. Security Council for possible censure over its nuclear ambitions, signaling increasing skepticism that continued negotiations with Iran will ever succeed.

"The Iranians are digging their own hole of isolation deeper and deeper," Rice said at a breakfast with State Department reporters, referring to Iran's announcement this week that it will resume nuclear fuel research after voluntarily suspending much of its program in 2004 to hold talks with Britain, France and Germany. Iranian officials failed to appear yesterday at a planned meeting to explain their decision to the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Rice would not lay out a timeline for action, saying the administration wants to get as large a vote as possible from the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors to refer the matter to the Security Council. But she asserted that the Bush administration has worked hard in the past year to build a consensus for action, first by settling differences with European allies over the best diplomatic approach and then by demonstrating that the Iranians are not serious about the talks.

"The European-American consensus is very strong. Others are coming to that consensus," Rice said. "That's not saber rattling. That's diplomacy."

During the breakfast, Rice was expansive about her goals for the coming year, stressing the push for democracy in the Middle East, stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, and building stronger ties with India. She expressed sorrow over the stroke that appears to have removed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from the Israeli political scene, but she refused to engage in a discussion about what the political turmoil would mean for Middle East peace efforts. The desire for peace "runs wide and deep in the Israeli society," she said.

Sharon's illness should not be an excuse for delaying Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for later this month, Rice added. Palestinian officials have suggested that the election could be delayed, especially with the prospect that the Islamic Resistance Movement, the militant group known as Hamas, is poised to make significant gains. "I don't really believe that we can favor postponing the elections because we fear an outcome," Rice said.

Rice criticized Russia for the "obviously political" decision by its state-controlled energy company to shut off natural gas to Ukraine on Jan. 1, the day it assumed the presidency of the Group of Eight industrialized countries. Russia backed down a day later, but Rice said the incident raised questions about the gap between "Russian behavior" and "what would be expected of a responsible member of the G-8."

Rice, who in the past year visited 49 countries and plans to depart for Indonesia and Australia this weekend, said her first year as secretary of state has been "an extraordinary year . . . an exciting year, a year that I've enjoyed very much." This year, she said, she will emphasize her goal of "transformational diplomacy" at the State Department, which she described as an effort to remake the culture of the Foreign Service from merely reporting on events overseas to actually shaping them.

"We're seeing around the world we are more engaged now on the ground, hands on," Rice said. She added that the project will result in changing the training and deployment of Foreign Service officers.

Rice's unusually blunt comments on Iran suggested that the administration is gearing up for a major push to bring Iran before the U.N. Security Council. "I don't have any doubt that at the right time, a time of our choosing, we're going to go to the Security Council if the Iranians are not prepared to do what they say they want to do, which is to pursue peaceful nuclear energy," Rice said.

"When it's clear that negotiations are exhausted, we have the votes," she said. "There is a resolution sitting there for referral. We'll vote it."

But a European diplomat familiar with the Iranian diplomacy said Rice's prediction appears too optimistic. The diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be able to comment more freely, said the Americans and the Europeans still have a lot of work to do and it is "no easy sale" yet, though the allies are arguing that referring the matter to the Security Council would be done mainly to support the IAEA, not to immediately impose sanctions.

The diplomat said a number of countries appear sympathetic to Iran's argument that it has a right to enrich uranium under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in part because they hope to reserve the option of one day doing it themselves.

Even if the referral is made to the Security Council, it is not clear how quickly the United States could muster support for additional actions. Nearly three years ago, the IAEA referred North Korea to the council for violating the NPT, but the matter has languished and no action has been taken.

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