By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 31, 2006
BERLIN, March 30 -- Senior diplomats from the five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany warned Iran on Thursday to halt sensitive nuclear activities and return to the negotiating table, but strains were apparent as Russia and China appeared to rule out sanctions or military action.
One day after the Security Council approved a watered-down statement that gave Iran 30 days to end its uranium enrichment program, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her counterparts met here for 3 1/2 hours to consider ways to persuade Iran to restrain its nuclear ambitions. "This is a strong signal to Iran that negotiation, not confrontation, should be their course," Rice said.
In Vienna, Iran's chief representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told the Associated Press that it was "impossible to go back to suspension" and that "this enrichment matter is not reversible."
Rice told reporters traveling with her to Berlin that the meeting would be used to "look ahead to what next steps we might wish to take." She suggested the range of options could include "strong messages," such as travel bans, which would affect the Iranian leadership personally, or measures to thwart Iran's ability to acquire materials needed for a civilian nuclear program.
A senior U.S. official in Rice's entourage said after the meeting that participants had demonstrated "substantial support" for considering the option of "moving toward sanctions." But in public comments afterward, Russian and Chinese officials expressed opposition to sanctions, on grounds they could lead to escalation and confrontation.
"In principle, Russia doesn't believe that sanctions could achieve the purposes of settlement of various issues," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
"There has already been enough turmoil in the Middle East," said Dai Bingguo, China's vice foreign minister, in a reference to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "We do not want to see new turmoil being introduced to the region."
The Bush administration has pushed hard to bring the dispute over Iran's nuclear programs to the Security Council. But the resistance by both Russia and China to tougher action underscores the limits of that approach. Officials from both countries said the issue should be handled by the IAEA, the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog.
Britain, France and Germany, leading an effort for the European Union, began negotiations with Iran three years ago to try to reach a solution, but the talks failed last year. Russia has also sought a compromise with Iran, but with little success.
It took three weeks of talks among Security Council members to reach agreement on the wording of Wednesday's statement. Russia successfully resisted language that would have called Iran's nuclear activities a threat to peace and security. Iran has said repeatedly that its nuclear program is for civilian energy only.
Lavrov noted that the IAEA has not ruled out a military dimension to Iran's program but neither has it concluded that Iran plans to build weapons with the nuclear fuel it hopes to produce.
"Before we call any situation a threat, we need facts, especially in a region like the Middle East, where so many things are happening," Lavrov said. ". . . So far, they have not been provided."
During the meeting, Rice and European officials sought to give the matter urgency by referring to reports that Iran has had unexpected success in assembling 164 centrifuges into a system known as a cascade, for uranium enrichment. That would be too small to produce enough fuel for a bomb, but Iran previously had worked with just 20 centrifuges. It appears to have completed the project about two months earlier than IAEA technical experts in Vienna had expected.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said no country was trying to deny Iran the ability to produce electricity through nuclear power. "We have shown very great patience with Iran. They in turn have miscalculated" by misleading the IAEA about their program for 18 years, Straw said. "They thought the international community would be divided on this issue, but truthfully, it has become more and more united."
Before the meeting, Rice met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel for an hour. After the gathering, she departed for Paris for talks with French President Jacques Chirac.