WASHINGTON — Three top Bush administration officials issued harsh words against Iran on Tuesday, underscoring growing tension over the Middle East nation’s continued refusal to back down on its nuclear program.
Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice both warned of dire consequences if Iran continued its nuclear fuel enrichment, while Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed that Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements had infiltrated Iraq to cause trouble.
“They are currently putting people into Iraq to do things that are harmful to the future of Iraq,” Rumsfeld said while denying that an increase in violence between sects in Iraq is the beginning of a civil war there. “And we know it. And it is something that they, I think, will look back on as having been an error in judgment.”
He would not be more specific except to say the infiltrators were members of the Al Quds Division of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Cheney, meanwhile, said that enrichment of nuclear fuel on Iranian territory was unacceptable.
Cheney warns of ‘meaningful consequences’
“The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose meaningful consequences,” Cheney said in a speech to the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC.
“For our part, the United States is keeping all options on the table,” he said. “We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”
In the past, the U.S. has said it has no intention of using military force for now but has declined to completely rule it out.
Cheney’s comments came as Russia appeared to close ranks with the United States over Tehran’s nuclear program.
In Washington, Rice also warned Iran — but shied away from warning of immediate U.N. sanctions — after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
At a joint State Department news conference, Lavrov said there was no compromise in sight with Iran.
Russia has been negotiating with Iran and has proposed enriching fuel on Russian soil for Iran's energy need.
A European official, in Vienna for the IAEA meeting, had said the Russian plan would fail if the Americans opposed it.
Referred to U.N. Security Council
The International Atomic Energy Agency already has referred the Iranian nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council, a move spearheaded by the Bush administration.
“We will see what is necessary to do in the Security Council,” Rice said. She said there was still time for Iran to change its ways.
From the State Department, Rice and Lavrov were headed to the White House for a meeting with President Bush.
Earlier in the day, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the U.S. expects the U.N. Security Council to move forward to rebuke Tehran for its disputed nuclear program.
A senior Western diplomat familiar with the Security Council negotiations said France and Britain those would begin preparing a statement later in the day “urging” Iran to re-impose a freeze on all enrichment, which can be misused to make nuclear arms.
The diplomat, who demanded anonymity in exchange for discussing strategy on Iran, said the statement also would call on Iran to fully cooperate with IAEA inspectors trying to establish whether the country had ever tried to make such weapons — all requests made earlier by the board.
IAEA weighs Iran’s proposal
A diplomat in Vienna, Austria — where the 35-nation IAEA board is meeting — said that Iran is offering to suspend full-scale uranium enrichment for up to two years.
The diplomat, who demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the issue, said Tehran’s offer was made Friday by chief Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani in Moscow in the context of contacts between Iran and Russia on moving Tehran’s enrichment program to Russia.
The diplomat also said Germany remained open to the proposal, which would allow the Iranians to run 20 uranium-enriching centrifuges domestically while ceding control of large-scale enrichment to Moscow, on Russian soil.
But Herbert Honsowitz, the chief German representative to the IAEA, told the AP that was a misinterpretation, with the Germans only expressing “appreciation” to the Russians for trying to come up with new approaches to the deadlock on enrichment.
Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said Tuesday his country was not prepared to freeze small-scale enrichment.
“We’ve spent a lot on this,” said Soltanieh, outside the IAEA board meeting.
Seeking a common stance
As the board meeting entered its second day, German representatives were meeting with counterparts from France and Britain — which both back the Americans in opposing the plan — to try to re-establish a common European stance on enrichment, the diplomats, who demanded anonymity in exchange for divulging confidential information, told The Associated Press.
A European official in Vienna for the meeting said that ultimately the plan would fail if the Americans opposed it.
The dispute, which surfaced in the last few days, was driving a wedge into joint international efforts to wean Iran of all enrichment activity by moving it to Russia, thereby reducing its potential for misuse by Tehran.
The original Russian plan that surfaced last year and is backed by the Americans and the European Union would have stripped the Iranians of all enrichment potential.
ElBaradei still hopeful
The diplomats said IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei backed the plan. On Monday, he told reporters a deal on Iran’s suspect nuclear program could be only a few days away, making U.N. Security Council action unneeded. Though he did not elaborate, his optimism appeared linked to the Russian proposal on limited enrichment.
“I am still very much hopeful that in the next week an agreement could be reached,” ElBaradei said.
China’s foreign minister also appealed for more negotiations, suggesting no need for Security Council involvement.
“Iran should cooperate closely with the IAEA to settle the nuclear dispute,” Li said.
The Americans remained unconvinced. U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said in Washington that “unless Iran does a dramatic about-face,” he expected the issue to be taken up by the Security Council.
Rice later telephoned ElBaradei “to reiterate the U.S. position that Iran should cease all enrichment-related activity,” said State Department spokesman Tom Casey.
In response, ElBaradei agreed that Iran must not be allowed to have enrichment activity on its territory, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not in position to speak for the IAEA.
There was no official IAEA response. But a diplomat familiar with ElBaradei’s stance questioned the U.S. version of ElBaradei’s position, saying the IAEA chief remained convinced there was no alternative to allowing Iran some enrichment activity as a way of reaching a deal.
The Russian proposal described by the diplomats would allow Tehran to conduct small-scale uranium enrichment, and would ask the IAEA to set the parameters of such activity to minimize the chances of abuse.
In return, the diplomats said, Iran would be asked to recommit to in-depth IAEA probes of its program on short notice. Iran canceled such investigations last month after the IAEA’s 35-nation board put the U.N. Security Council on alert by passing on Iran’s nuclear dossier.
France, Britain and Germany broke off negotiations on behalf of the European Union with Iran last year after it resumed enrichment-related activities, which can produce both nuclear fuel and the fissile core of warheads. Since then, they, the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan have been at the forefront of efforts to have the U.N. Security Council take up the Iran issue.
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