US official disavows 'artificial deadlines' for action on Iran

Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN, sounded less strident Friday in addressing Iran’s nuclear program than Secretary of State Clinton has.

By , Staff writer

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    A Russian technician works in the control room at the nuclear power plant in Bushehr, Iran, in February.
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The US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, sounded less strident Friday in addressing the issue of Iran’s nuclear program than Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has, refusing to discuss what she called “artificial deadlines” for action on Iran. This suggested that room still exists for diplomacy with Tehran.

At a Monitor breakfast on the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Ambassador Rice said the United States under President Obama is taking “a new and different approach to the UN” that sees the world body as a crucial and potentially even more effective contributor to addressing “a world of 21st-century transnational security challenges.”

On Iran, Rice said the US will evaluate over “the days and weeks to come” the letter that the Iranians sent to Europeans Wednesday. That letter was in response to a Western proposal in April for negotiations in exchange for a halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment. Also within that time frame, the Security Council will review the existing sanctions against Iran, she said, and the Council’s permanent members and Germany – the so-called P5+1 group – will meet to discuss possible further action.

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Rice sought to quiet speculation that Russia and China are already set against a toughening of sanctions on Iran. She noted that those two powers – both permanent members of the Council with veto power to stop its action – have a historical disposition against sanctions and are often reluctant to adopt them. But the two countries, she noted, joined the Council in June in passing one of the UN’s toughest sanctions resolutions ever against North Korea over that country’s nuclear activities.

Still, Rice did not employ the tone that Secretary Clinton did in congressional testimony earlier this year when she said that the US would seek “crippling” sanctions against Iran if it did not respond positively and in a timely manner to the West’s April proposal and to Mr. Obama’s call for negotiations with Iran.

Rice cited Iran’s contested presidential election in June and the continuing political turmoil there as factors adding a new layer to US and international deliberations on Tehran. “The elections and their aftermath have added a layer of complexity to assessing the overtures and offers of diplomatic engagement,” she said.

Obama initially said he wanted by the end of the year either negotiations with Iran or a move to other options for addressing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The president subsequently moved that deadline up to the end of this month. Obama joined other world leaders in setting the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh this month as the next point for taking stock of the Iranian challenge and exploring further action.

On Thursday, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, suggested that Russian support for tougher sanctions against Tehran is unlikely.

Mr. Lavrov said the kinds of sanctions under discussion, such as a cutoff of gasoline supplies – something under discussion in the US Congress – would amount to a blockade and hurt the Iranian people. Also, he noted, Iran has never taken aggressive action against Russia.

An inability to act within the Security Council could prompt the US to seek concerted action outside the Council and among what some are calling a “coalition of the willing,” which could include countries like Britain, France, and Germany.

But that would seem to be a last resort for the Obama administration, since it hopes to work with a united Security Council on the kinds of “21st-century security challenges” that Rice discussed Friday.

The US ambassador appeared to address the growing ranks of Obama’s critics on Afghanistan policy – including within the president’s own party – when she placed the war there in the context of those top global security challenges. “We have a very crucial stake in Afghanistan,” she said, “and if we need a reminder, it comes today,” the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which were planned and executed from Afghan soil.

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