Iran Nuclear News Rice: World should not soften on Iran

Rice: World should not soften on Iran

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AP: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested Tuesday the U.N. nuclear enforcement chief should stay out of a long-running diplomatic standoff with Iran. Associated Press

By ANNE GEARAN

AP Diplomatic Writer

BERLIN (AP) – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested Tuesday the U.N. nuclear enforcement chief should stay out of a long-running diplomatic standoff with Iran.

Traveling to Europe for meetings that will include the European nations who are leading the stalled diplomacy, Rice said the world should not soften demands that Iran halt disputed nuclear work.

“That would be a very big mistake,” Rice said of the notion, gaining steam in Europe, that negotiators drop their condition that Iran freeze nuclear work before talks begin on a package of incentives.

The mothballed offer is meant to persuade Iran to back off a nuclear program that the West suspects is a cover for a weapons program. Tehran says its program is intended only to develop nuclear energy, and it has refused to apply the brakes. The United States has led an effort to punish Iran’s defiance with United Nations sanctions.

Rice sounded intrigued by signs of progress on another front in the complicated confrontation with Iran. U.S. and Iranian envoys met Monday for the first talks of their kind in nearly three decades.

Although limited to the subject of violence and security in Iraq, the meeting is a possible opening for wider contacts between two nations deeply suspicious of one another. Rice said she will judge the session’s success by Iranian follow-through.

The United States accuses Iran of training and supplying Shiite extremists in Iraq and of providing a particularly deadly kind of bomb that insurgents use against U.S. forces in Iraq. Iran denies it, but U.S. officials are waiting to see if the flow slows or stops following Monday’s meeting in Baghdad.

The United States leads opposition to any compromise on Iran’s uranium enrichment program, and the official U.S. stance remains that Iran must scrap all its equipment. However, a nearly two-year deadlock has led the State Department to search for an acceptable fudge – perhaps a redefinition of what constitutes a freeze – that would allow Iran to come to the table. Rice wants to prevent that compromise from sliding further.

The senior U.S. diplomat dismissed the idea that Iran’s apparently rapid advance toward nuclear proficiency may make her carrot-and-stick strategy obsolete. International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei last week suggested it is too late to force Tehran to totally scrap its enrichment program as demanded by the U.N. Security Council.

“We are firm about the need to suspend, we are firm about the need to continue to increase the pressure and we’re firm that should Iran make a different choice we are prepared to go that way as well,” Rice said.

She will not see ElBaradei on this trip, although she will be at his headquarters in Vienna.

Rice said the schedule was too tight but she did not disguise irritation at his remarks, which could undermine her tough line and reduce her bargaining power for tougher sanctions.

“The IAEA is not an agency that is in negotiation with the Iranians,” Rice said, noting that the United Nations has given that role to the United States and five other powers. “I just think it’s appropriate for those six states to determine what the diplomatic course ought to be.”

The U.S. is waiting for a meeting later this week between the European Union’s nuclear negotiator and his Iranian counterpart before pushing for a third round of U.S. sanctions.

The U.N. measures are more symbolic than painful, since they do not address Iran’s lucrative oil and gas exports. Rice was vague about what options she favors next, but there is little Security Council support for vigorous punishment.

The Bush administration has levied its own restrictions on Iranian banking transactions that U.S. officials claim is having a spillover effect throughout the international financial system. Although the United States has stressed the importance of keeping a united international front with Iran despite Iran’s refusal to budge, officials play up the relative success of the unilateral U.S. financial moves.

“I’ve always thought that the financial measures are actually more – the collateral effects – are probably more important than almost anything else,” Rice said. “So we’ll see how some of those are affecting” Iran’s energy industry, she added.

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