The Obama administration said Thursday it has set no deadline for its diplomatic outreach to Iran to show results, but that U.S. patience on the issue of Tehran's nuclear program is not infinite. The new administration has said it will be a full participant in big-power nuclear contacts with Iran.
Officials here say there is no specific time-line on nuclear diplomacy with Iran but that the United States is not prepared to wait forever for Tehran to agree to curb its uranium enrichment program and return to formal negotiations.
The comments here came in response to a report by the Wall Street Journal newspaper Thursday that the administration and European allies have set a target for early October for determining whether engagement with Iran is making progress.
The U.N. Security Council has approved three sanctions resolutions against Iran for its refusal to halt a uranium enrichment drive U.S. officials believe is weapons related.
Russia and China have resisted additional sanctions. The Wall Street Journal report said U.S. officials believe those two powers might be more amenable to tougher sanctions if there is no breakthrough before world leaders convene for the new U.N. General Assembly in late September.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly insisted however that there is no fixed timetable.
"We're not setting any deadline. And we're not interested in setting any kind of specific or even notional time-line," said Kelly. We are of course monitoring very closely what the Iranians are doing, assessing progress. But we don't have any time-line. We're not going to let this string out forever of course, but we don't have any timetable on it."
The Bush administration refused a direct role in nuclear talks with Iran unless it first halted its enrichment program, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes.
Spokesman Kelly said the Obama administration determined that the previous approach of isolating Iran "didn't work" and that it wants to give engagement with Iran a chance.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Senators in April the United States is prepared to push for "crippling sanctions" against Tehran if outreach fails.
The U.S. Congress is currently debating legislation that would require the White House to sanction companies that sell refined petroleum products to Iran, which despite its huge oil reserves lacks gasoline refining capacity.
But at a Senate hearing Thursday, senior State Department Middle east expert Jeffrey Feltman appeared cool to the idea of new U.S. sanctions, saying the administration favors a multi-lateral approach.
"We don't want to end up in a situation where we're taking steps that could make it harder for us to strengthen the international coalition that's focused on Iran," said Feltman. "We want to keep the focus on Iran and what Iran is doing, and what we can do collectively in order to try to persuade Iran to take a different course."
Feltman, a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, spoke at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his nomination to be Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. He has held the top Middle East post on an acting basis since January.