US seeks Iran sanctions now
By Mark Heinrich
VIENNA (Reuters) - The United States said on Wednesday Iran was "aggressively" pursuing atom bombs and should face sanctions now, but EU allies stressed it was not too late for talks on a negotiated solution to its disputed nuclear work.
The Western partners in a group of six powers dealing with Iran appeared to differ over the urgency of sanctions in their statements to the U.N. nuclear watchdog's board of governors.
And a minister from Washington's staunchest ally, Britain, warned Tehran probably had the resources to endure sanctions.
A meeting between European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani, set for Thursday, was postponed without reasons given. EU diplomats had said they would discuss a tentative offer by Larijani to consider temporarily halting enrichment of uranium for nuclear fuel.
Solana's spokeswoman said, however, that lower-level EU and Iranian officials would still meet in Paris.
"It's not ready to go to the principals. It is fine for the work to continue at the level of experts," she said, adding Solana and Larijani were expected to speak by telephone in the coming days but that no meeting was planned at this stage.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she believed Iran had canceled the Solana-Larijani meeting and that this suggested Tehran did not wish to suspend its nuclear activities.
"It is my understanding that -- perhaps not surprisingly -- they have canceled the meeting for now. That should tell us something," Rice told reporters. "If the Iranians still wish to suspend and begin negotiations obviously that would be a good thing but given that they canceled the meeting, I don't really know that that option is available."
Iran's arch-enemy the United States has been spearheading efforts to draw up punitive U.N. sanctions against Tehran over suspicions it is secretly trying to build atom bombs.
Western leaders condemned Iran's disregard of an August 31 U.N. Security Council deadline to suspend its uranium enrichment program, which Iran insists is meant only to make electricity.
The Islamic Republic refuses to suspend enrichment before negotiations on an offer by the major powers of trade incentives not to develop nuclear fuel.
Washington made clear to the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran's defiance should trigger steps to sanctions but the "EU3," Britain, France and Germany, omitted mention of punitive action and called for last-ditch talks despite Tehran's violation of the deadline.
"Given Iran's history of deception, lack of transparency, provocative behavior and disregard for its international obligations, we must take further steps to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions," U.S. envoy Gregory Schulte told the 35-nation board in Vienna.
U.S. SAYS SANCTIONS NO BAR TO DIPLOMACY
"We are convinced that Iran is aggressively pursuing the technology, material and know-how to build nuclear weapons. The time has come for the (U.N.) Security Council to back international diplomacy with international sanctions," he said.
"Sanctions will not signal an end to diplomacy. (But) Iran's leaders must understand that their choices have consequences."
Washington's fellow veto-holders on the Security Council, China and Russia, France, Germany and other EU nations are wary of cornering the world's fourth biggest oil exporter and want more time to find a diplomatic compromise.
"I can't see a military way through this and I'm not sure that even there's an easy way for the U.N. to impose sanctions," Britain's Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells told his parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.
The EU3 statement said that although Iran had not suspended enrichment activity by the deadline, "it is still not too late to do so. We continue to extend an open hand to Iran."
The U.S., British, French, German, Russian and Chinese foreign ministers will meet on the fringes of the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week to discuss proceeding to sanctions if there has been no diplomatic breakthrough by then.
(Additional reporting by Karin Strohecker in Vienna, Ingrid Melander and Mark John in Brussels, Louis Charbonneau in Berlin and Arshad Mohammed in Washington)
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