Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets her counterparts from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany in Berlin on Thursday to discuss Iran's nuclear program. VOA's Sonja Pace reports from Washington that while the United States would like to see a strong consensus to stem Iran's nuclear ambitions, it is also seeking Tehran's cooperation on Iraq.
The United States insists the international community must send an unequivocal message to Tehran that it will not tolerate any attempt by Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.
It is a message Washington has been driving home for some time, dismissing Iranian insistence that it has a right to develop nuclear technology and wants to do so for peaceful purposes only.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack says the burden of proof is on Iran.
"We think at this point, the Iranian regime has worn down its trust relationship with the international community to basically zero," he said.
True, says Kenneth Katzman, Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. He says Iran needs to prove it will abide by promises it made to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2004 to suspend its uranium enrichment program, enriched uranium being one of the essential building blocks for a nuclear bomb.
But he says the real question is what sort of punishment the U.S. and its allies will be able to use if Iran does not comply, especially with Security Council members Russia and China against harsh measures.
"There are some Security Council members who might ultimately, I think, agree to maybe minor sanctions - travel sanctions, maybe some financial sanctions," Katzman said. "I don't think there will be agreement ultimately on sanctions that are strict enough to really have a deterrent effect and make Iran reverse course."
Bush administration officials say they hope the Berlin meeting will prove a political boost for a unified Security Council statement and for plans for a long-term strategy to deal with Iran.
While Washington works to increase pressure against Iran on the nuclear issue, it is also seeking Tehran's cooperation on the deteriorating security situation in Iraq.
The United States has accused Iran of disruptive meddling in Iraq, supporting Shi'ite militias and sending in weapons and materials used by insurgents to make improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
At a recent news conference, President Bush explained why a few months ago, he instructed America's ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad to talk with the Iranians.
"I said absolutely, you make it clear to them that attempts to spread sectarian violence or to maybe move parts that could be used for IEDs is unacceptable to the United States," he said.
The Iranians deny meddling in Iraq, but they have responded to U.S. overtures for talks. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told worshippers at Friday prayers at Tehran University last week future talks with the United States would focus on Iraq and ways to build a stable government there.
That seemed to confirm what U.S. officials have been saying - that any talks about Iraq are completely separate from negotiations about the nuclear issue.
But Kenneth Katzman says the two issues are not so easily separated, certainly not from Iran's perspective.
"Iran's view is that if Iran can hold out the promise of maybe settling down Iraq by restraining violence, that the U.S. will go easy on Iran, or at least not [be] as assertive on Iran, at the Security Council on the nuclear issue," he said.
Katzman says Iran sees such talks as a way to gain leverage and definitely stands to benefit. So far, there has been no word when or where those talks might take place.
The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in April 1980, five months after militants stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took its occupants hostage. Since then contacts between the two countries have been rare. Some discussions did take place to secure Iran's support for reconstruction in Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taleban in 2001.