The Bush administration threatened Saturday to take Iran before the United Nations Security Council "at a time of our choosing" if Iran does not return to negotiations over a program that could give it the ability to make nuclear weapons.
But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice failed to gain Russian support for prompt Security Council action, undermining U.S. efforts to put pressure on the Iranian regime. Rice added Moscow at the last minute to a hectic trip to Central Asia and Europe to coordinate policies with Russia on Iran, Syria and Lebanon. She told reporters en route to London, her last stop, that "we're making progress" on all three. But major differences remain over Iran.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters after meeting Rice that Russia believes the matter should remain with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog, for the forseeable future.
"The current situation permits us to do everything within this organization without referring this to other organizations so far," he said. He added, in response to a question, that Iran has a right to make nuclear fuel even though the IAEA board said last month that Iran had not complied with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
Twelve nations including Russia and China abstained on that IAEA decision. Twenty-two voted in favor and one, Venezuela, voted no. The board, which previously has never acted on a majority vote but only by consensus, meets again Nov. 24. It looks unlikely now that it will send Iran before the Security Council at that time.
Rice said the United States has the option of bringing up the Iranian nuclear issue at the Security Council "at a time of our choosing" no matter what the IAEA does. However, Russia and China have the power to veto meaningful punishment. Both have lucrative economic ties with Iran that they do not want to jeopardize.
Rice said the Bush administration hopes Iran will come back to negotiations before Nov. 24 with Britain, France, Germany and the European Union. The Russians have not set any deadline. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Kislyak, who participated in Saturday's talks with Rice, said the nuclear negotiations are "a long-term dialogue."
Iran insists its program is only meant to generate electricity and that it must be able to make its own fuel to guarantee its energy independence. But Iran's Islamic government hid major elements of the program until two years ago and does not yet have a civilian nuclear power plant up and running. The Russians are completing one plant at the southern Iranian city of Bushehr. They have reached a deal with Iran to provide fuel for the plant and take back the uranium after it has run through the reactor.
Rice pointed to this arrangement as part of a possible broader deal with Iran. She also said it was evidence that Russia does not trust Iran not to try to make a bomb. She said the Russians would try to convince Iran to come back to talks "as quickly as possible."
Iran in August rejected a European offer of greater economic and political ties and an assured source of nuclear fuel in return for giving up its own fuel program. Iran also resumed converting raw uranium into uranium hexafluoride, the first step toward making fuel for a civilian reactor or bombs.
After the last. IAEA vote, Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani threatened that Iran would scale back its cooperation with the nuclear agency and possibly kick out U.N. inspectors if taken before the Security Council. Larijani also threatened to hurt U.S. interests in Iraq, where Iran has influence with Shiite Muslims, USA TODAY reports.
Other Iranian officials have toned down rhetoric recently. Iran's Foreign Ministry said in a statement this week that Iran is ready to resume "unconditional negotiations" with IAEA members, including the Europeans.