Despite an intense lobbying effort at the most senior levels, the Bush administration failed to persuade three key countries Thursday to back the United States in pressuring Iran to give up sensitive aspects of its nuclear energy program, diplomats and officials said.
Russia, China and India either publicly or privately turned down U.S. requests to help report Iran's case next week to the U.N. Security Council, which has the authority to impose economic sanctions or an oil embargo.
The administration has the reluctant support of the European Union for the first time in more than two years, but that will not be enough. Without backing from one of the three others, U.S. officials indicated they were preparing to abandon, for now, a quest to move the matter into the council.
The decision left the administration scrambling for a Plan B, and U.S. and European diplomats said there were backroom negotiations, on the margins of a U.N. summit in New York, to forge a compromise among countries with influence on the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Some officials said they were considering the possibility of an IAEA resolution that would set a concrete deadline for Iran to comply with a series of measures. If Iran failed, the IAEA board would automatically take the matter to the Security Council.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Thursday and will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday, acknowledged that Washington might lack a convincing majority if the IAEA votes on whether to refer Iran's case to the council when it meets Monday in Vienna.
"If we get a referral on September 19, that will be good, but I think the issue of a referral is something that we'll be working for a while," Rice told Fox News. "I'm not so concerned about exactly when it happens, because I don't think this matter is so urgent that it has to be on September 19," she said.
Her comments were the strongest public indication yet that the administration was reversing course after expressing confidence, as recently as last week, that it was closer than at any time in the past to taking the matter to the Security Council. U.S. and foreign diplomats said India, which recently forged a major new security and nuclear alliance with the United States, could not be persuaded to join the U.S. strategy. India, which has close economic, political and cultural ties to Iran, has said it supports Iran's right to a nuclear energy program.
India's position, which U.S. officials have said they had not anticipated, has been deeply embarrassing for the White House at a time when it is trying to win congressional support for the India deal. Some officials, who would discuss the diplomatic calculations underway only on condition of anonymity, said the administration preferred to give up the chance of winning a slim majority in the IAEA next week rather than seek a vote that India would publicly oppose.
Iran insists its nuclear efforts are aimed at producing nuclear energy, not bombs. The Bush administration has said that the energy program, built in secret over 18 years and exposed in 2002, is just a cover for a weapons program. Iran has built facilities to enrich uranium to fuel its energy program. But the facilities could produce bomb-grade uranium, and the Bush administration wants the Iranians to give them up.
While many countries appear to share U.S. suspicions about Iran's intentions, they have profound differences with the Bush administration over how to respond, and are apprehensive about the goals of a U.S. president who has said that "all options are on the table" in dealing with Tehran.
Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said the differences were tactical, rather than strategic, and that efforts were underway to "convince the Iranians to return to the talks" they started with the Europeans in the fall of 2003.
Iran bolted the talks in August after receiving European proposals that would have required Tehran to permanently give up much of the nuclear energy program it has already built. Burns said he would devote the next several days to working with the Russians on the Iran issue.
Even the Europeans, frustrated after two tumultuous years of negotiations with Iran over the future of its nuclear program, said they prefer to avoid going to the Security Council.
"Our aim all the way through in this when we started these negotiations was to keep the matter out of the Security Council," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told reporters after a half-hour meeting Thursday with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "What we're going to do is to listen carefully to what [Ahmadinejad] is going to say on Saturday afternoon and we'll take it from there."
Ahmadinejad, who has been holding his own round of talks with world leaders attending the U.N. summit, met with Straw and the French and German foreign ministers. The European ministers held an earlier 90-minute meeting with Iran's foreign minister and Ahmadinejad's national security adviser.
The newly elected hard-line Iranian president has little foreign policy experience. But he told reporters Thursday he plans to present new proposals to resolve the impasse when he addresses the conference Saturday. He said Iran's aims are peaceful and that "any improper use of production for nuclear arms should be prevented."