AP: Armed with the full support of NATO allies, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will try to convince a skeptical Russia that it should back U.S. plans to step up pressure on Iran to suspend its nuclear activities. The Associated Press
By MATTHEW LEE
Associated Press Writer
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) – Armed with the full support of NATO allies, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will try to convince a skeptical Russia that it should back U.S. plans to step up pressure on Iran to suspend its nuclear activities.
Having won NATO endorsement to stay the course despite a new U.S. intelligence assessment that concludes Iran stopped its atomic weapons development program in 2003, Rice was to meet Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who has become the public face of opposition to new U.N. sanctions.
On the sidelines of a NATO meeting already beset by alliance differences with Russia over U.S. plans for European missile defense and troop deployments in Europe, Rice and Lavrov were to discuss Washington’s surprising revision of its view of Iranian nuclear intentions. The National Intelligence Estimate, released Monday, credited intense diplomatic activity for Iran’s decision on weapons.
“The point that I’m emphasizing to people is that it was international pressure that got the Iranians to halt their program,” Rice said.
“This suggests that you ought to keep up that international pressure,” she told reporters on her way to Belgium for her first face-to-face talks on the matter with foreign officials since the intelligence report became public.
NATO members agreed, reaching consensus over a working dinner Thursday that their policy toward Iran “should not change,” Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht said, noting that existing offers of nuclear cooperation with Iran if it stops enriching and reprocessing uranium.
“There was unanimity around the table that there is a clear choice for Iran,” British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters on Friday. “Iran can see the outstretched hand from the international community if they are willing to join the drive against proliferation.
“But if Iran persists on defying the will of the United Nations Security Council, then there must be further sanctions,” he said.
The comments came after the leaders of NATO allies France and Germany called for the continuation of the two-pronged approach of pressure and negotiations with Iran.
“I think we are in a process and that Iran continues to pose a danger,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Paris at a joint news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
“The threat exists,” Sarkozy said.
But Lavrov on Wednesday said Moscow had not seen any evidence that Iran had, in fact, ever had a nuclear weapons program, not even one that it had given up on four years ago. He also criticized the United States for its missile defense plans.
Still, along with China, which also has opposed new U.N. sanctions, Russia appeared isolated on Iran, which long has denied it is seeking nuclear weapons and crowed that the U.S. intelligence report was a total “victory” for the country.
Rice said she saw no reason for major policy moves.
“I don’t see that the NIE changes the course that we’re on,” she said.
“In fact, I would think given the assessment that Iran is indeed susceptible to coordinated international pressure that (this) is the right approach,” she said.
The U.S. has been successful in leading two rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran and is pushing for a third set of economic sanctions if the country refuses to suspend uranium enrichment.
Ahead of formal alliance meetings on Friday, Rice met Thursday with the foreign ministers of Italy, Belgium and Britain, as well as European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
On Friday she sees German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, as well as Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Israel believes Iran is still working aggressively to build nuclear arms, despite the new U.S. conclusions and on Friday, a senior Israeli defense official said the Jewish state supported diplomacy but suggested it would still consider a military strike against Iran.
The Islamic regime in Tehran strongly opposes Israel’s existence and frequently boasts of its ability to strike the Jewish state with long-range missiles.
Bush administration officials concede that the findings of the new intelligence estimate could hurt their efforts to impose more sanctions on Iran to increase pressure for it to cease uranium enrichment and reprocessing, which could produce the ingredients for a bomb.
Discussions on that point, between the U.S. and the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – Britain, France, Russia and China – plus Germany in the “P5 plus one” grouping had been on hold pending consideration of the new intelligence.
Ahead of the NATO decision, Rice said she would impress on her counterparts the need for Iran to disclose the nature of its alleged secret nuclear weapons program prior to 2003, returning to a theme addressed Wednesday by President Bush.
“We should also start to look at ways for Iran to account for what was happening before 2003,” she said, without elaboration on what type of mechanism she had in mind, if any.
Bush on Wednesday demanded that Tehran detail its previous program to develop nuclear weapons – “which the Iranian regime has yet to acknowledge.”