By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 16, 2007 6:58 PM
Beijing's initial position had threatened to force cancellation of a critical meeting to debate new sanctions that the Bush administration hopes to impose on Iran through the United Nations, U.S. and European diplomats said today.
The meeting is tentatively scheduled to be held the week after Thanksgiving. The Bush administration has been pressing the world body to act because Iran has failed to suspend uranium enrichment -- a process that can be used for a peaceful energy program as well as to develop atomic weapons.
China's reversal followed unusually blunt language from the State Department, which yesterday called on Beijing to be more "resolute" after the U.N. nuclear watchdog organization said in a new report that Iran had provided some help with information about its previously secret nuclear program, but that data on its current efforts had been "diminishing" since 2006.
"We need China to join the effort and agree to have the next meeting," Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said in an interview yesterday. "We're concerned that China's trade has increased significantly with Iran. It's incongruous for China to continue to sell arms to Iran and become Iran's top trade partner. We've advised the Chinese to take a much more resolute role."
After a meeting at the White House today, President Bush said he and visiting Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda had agreed that "a nuclear armed Iran would threaten the security of the Middle East and beyond."
The United States and its closest ally in Asia "are united in our efforts to change the regime's behavior through diplomacy," Bush told reporters. "We agreed that unless Iran commits to suspend enrichment, international pressure must and will grow."
Fukuda, making his first visit to Washington since he became prime minister in September, said through an interpreter, "With regard to Iranian nuclear development, we can never tolerate. And we agreed that we shall, together, work to raise pressure with the international community so that Iran will comply with the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions."
The two also discussed six-party talks aimed at getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Bush said the talks "have delivered measurable results" and that "plutonium production facilities at Yongbyon are now being disabled under six-party supervision."
Bush added, "Hard work still remains to be done. North Korea has agreed to provide a full declaration of all its nuclear programs and proliferation activities by the end of this year."
In a critically timed assessment, the International Atomic Energy Agency yesterday said that Iran provided "timely" and helpful new information on a secret nuclear program that became public in 2002. But it said Iran did not fully answer questions about the program or allow full access to Iranian personnel. Iran is even less cooperative on its current program, the IAEA reported.
"Since early 2006, the agency has not received the type of information that Iran had previously been providing," the IAEA concluded. "The agency's knowledge about Iran's current nuclear program is diminishing."
The IAEA's report also confirmed that Iran has 3,000 centrifuges in operation, which is the minimum needed to enrich a significant amount of uranium and represents a tenfold increase over last year. Having 3,000 functioning centrifuges is a major technical milestone for Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly stated in recent months that Tehran has reached that strategic threshold. If all 3,000 centrifuges are working efficiently, Iran could produce a weapon in a year. But the report indicated that the IAEA has no evidence Iran could produce bomb-grade fuel, and most experts think it still faces significant technical problems.
"They have centrifuges, but it's unclear how well they work and how long they would work," said George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. At his confirmation hearings to be director of national intelligence in February, Mike McConnell estimated that Iran would not have a nuclear weapon until 2015.
Iran's new chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, heralded the IAEA's report for proving that "most ambiguities" about Tehran's program have been removed. At a news conference, he said the U.N. agency showed that allegations about Iran trying to subvert a peaceful energy program to develop the world's deadliest weapon are "baseless."
Ahmadinejad said the report by IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei shows the world that Iran has been "right and the resistance of our nation has been correct."
In Tehran, Ahmadinejad demanded today that the West "bravely apologize to the Iranian nation," according to state-controlled broadcasting service. Western nations have been saying "unacceptable and incorrect things . . . and we advise them to stop because illegal remarks will have no result," he reportedly said.
U.S. arms experts took a middle ground. "ElBaradei wants to focus on the positive in terms of the accounting for the past," Perkovich said. "But in the big strategic picture, the report is wholly negative because Iran is not suspending uranium enrichment. Iran is not only not suspending, but it is spitting in our face by saying they're going to ramp up with the next generation of centrifuges beyond what they had already."
The United States warned yesterday that Iran's failure to fully comply with U.N. mandates -- to suspend enrichment and detail its nuclear program -- is grounds for the United Nations to proceed on a long-delayed resolution imposing new sanctions on the Islamic republic.
"The key thing from the director general's report is that Iran's cooperation remains selective and incomplete," said Gregory L. Schulte, the U.S. envoy to the IAEA in Austria. "So Iran has not met the world's expectation that it would disclose information on both its current and past programs."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that "partial credit doesn't cut it when you're talking about issues of whether or not Iran is developing a nuclear weapon." White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the report "makes clear that Iran seems uninterested in working with the rest of the world."
The Bush administration has been counting on two reports this month -- the IAEA's assessment and a report by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who negotiates with Iran -- to end five months of squabbling among the five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council about further steps against Tehran. U.N. resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran, passed in December and March, have been unsuccessful in getting Tehran to comply.
China and Russia, two of the five veto-wielding Security Council members, have taken the hardest positions against a third U.N. resolution on Tehran, which the United States had hoped to complete last summer. Both want the International Atomic Energy Agency to have more time to work with Iran to get a full picture of a secret program that was made public in 2002. They also are concerned about their own economic interests and the risk of fomenting wider tension between Iran and the West, according to U.S. and European diplomats.
Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report.