Rice brings US case against Iran
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) ” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began talks with European and Russian officials Thursday to urge greater international pressure on Iran to halt uranium enrichment and come clean about its past and present nuclear programs.
Just days after a new U.S. intelligence estimate contradicted years of assertions that Iran is secretly pursuing atomic weapons, Rice was stressing the Bush administration’s case for continued isolation of the Iranian regime with NATO allies and Russia, its former Cold War foe.
In two days of meetings ” her first face-to-face sessions with world powers now considering new U.N. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program since the National Intelligence Estimate was released on Monday ” she said she would argue for more pressure.
“I don’t see that the NIE changes the course that we’re on,” Rice told reporters aboard her plane as she flew to Belgium for a conference of NATO foreign ministers and talks between the alliance and Russia, which along with China has been particularly resistant to new sanctions.
“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, referring to the NIE finding that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 due to intense diplomatic activity.
“The point that I’m emphasizing to people is that it was international pressure that got the Iranians to halt their program,” she said. “This suggests that you ought to keep up that international pressure.”
Rice was to meet separately on 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.
Iran will be a major topic in all of those discussions as well as in her Friday talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, perhaps the figure most suspicious of U.S. Iran policy, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose government appears conflicted on the matter.
Rice will also see Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Friday. Israeli officials say their intelligence forces believe Iran is still working aggressively to build nuclear arms despite the new U.S. conclusion about Iran. The Islamic regime in Tehran is strongly opposed to Israel’s existence and frequently boasts of its ability to strike the Jewish state with long-range missiles.
Bush administration officials have conceded that their abrupt abandonment of that point will likely hurt their efforts to impose more sanctions on Iran to boost pressure for it to cease uranium enrichment and reprocessing, which could produce the ingredients for a bomb.
“Perhaps, but it wasn’t easy to begin with,” Vice President Cheney said Wednesday in an interview with Politico.com, an online political magazine.
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 so-called “P5+1” grouping are now on hold pending consideration of the new intelligence.
The only one of those countries without a representative in Brussels for Rice’s meetings is China, and President Bush called China’s leader, Hu Jintao, on Thursday, in an apparent attempt to keep the Chinese in the loop on the Iran situation.
The White House confirmed the call had taken place but would not comment on details reported by China’s Xinhua News Agency, which said Bush had expressed U.S. willingness to resolve the issue through diplomacy and that Hu had pledged China was committed to a peaceful solution through dialogue.
In Brussels, 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 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.” “The Iranians have a strategic choice to make,” he said in Nebraska.
Those comments came as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed that the new assessment is “a declaration of victory for the Iranian nation against the world powers over the nuclear issue.”
Rice scoffed at those remarks but has been working the phones to defend the administration’s surprise shift on Iran and to explain it to those in the international community who have been calling for diplomacy.
“It opens a window of opportunity for Iran now, because Iran obviously has been somewhat vindicated in saying that they have not been working on a weapons program, at least for the past few years,” U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said.
The response from European partners who would lead any new negotiations with Iran has been modulated but generally supportive.
European and U.N. officials said that the U.S. report bolsters their argument for negotiations and that the world should not walk away from years of talks with an often-defiant Tehran that is openly enriching uranium for uncertain ends.