Senior diplomats of major world powers will meet in Europe next week to begin discussing sanctions against Iran, if Tehran, as expected, fails to meet Thursday's U.N. Security Council deadline for suspending uranium enrichment. U.S. officials believe agreement on an initial round of sanctions can be reached within a matter of weeks.
With chances for an Iranian change of heart on the Security Council resolution considered virtually nil, U.S. officials say groundwork is being laid for an incremental program of sanctions against Tehran.
Iran has until Thursday to respond to the U.N. demand that it halt uranium enrichment and other sensitive activities and return to negotiations over its nuclear program.
The Tehran government said a week ago it was prepared for serious talks on the issue but would not comply with the precondition, and there is no sign of an early change in that position.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicolas Burns will join colleagues from the other permanent U.N. Security Council member countries and Germany in Europe early next week to begin sanctions talks.
In parallel, he said, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, will hold talks in New York on the language of a sanctions resolution:
"We are now at the next step, where we believe that sanctions are merited," said Sean McCormack. "And we hope that sanctions will send a clear, strong signal to the Iranian regime that this is a matter of utmost concern, and serious concern to the international community and that they need to change their behavior. And that if they don't change their behavior, they are going to become more and more isolated."
The Security Council set the August 31 deadline a month ago to reinforce an offer from the so-called P-Five Plus One countries of economic and political incentives for Iran to halt nuclear activities seen as weapons-related.
U.S. officials have spoken of an initial round of sanctions that include visa restrictions and asset freeze targeted at Iranian leaders. If that doesn't prompt Iran to change its stand, more severe sanctions are envisaged from the Security Council, and if necessary from like-minded countries outside the U.N. framework.
Russia and China have expressed misgivings about sanctions. But officials here say they are confident that at least a first layer of penalties will be approved within a matter of weeks, before the end of October.
The Thursday deadline coincides with the arrival in the United States of former Iranian President Mohamad Khatami, who has been granted a U.S. visa to attend a U.N. meeting in New York and private events including a multi-faith religious dialogue next week in Washington.
Mr. Khatami will be the most senior Iranian figure to visit the United States since the rupture in diplomatic relations following Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
The visa decision is controversial with some U.S. critics saying Mr. Khatami should be excluded because of Iran's alleged support of terrorism and human rights abuses.
Spokesman McCormack defended the visa decision, saying it is in fulfillment of U.S. obligations as the United Nations host country and in the American tradition of free speech.
He said he hopes Mr. Khatami, in his U.S. appearances, will be asked about the aspects of Iranian policy that trouble the international community:
"We would hope that these organizations and individuals attending these events take the opportunity to ask him hard questions about Iran's role in the world, how it treats its own people, and why it continues to be the world's most significant state sponsor of terror, why they view that as useful, constructive behavior," he said.
Mr. Khatami, who left office last year, was considered a relative moderate among Iranian leaders and had advocated U.S.-Iranian dialogue.
He has no meetings planned with U.S. government officials, though former President Jimmy Carter has agreed in principle to meet him.
Spokesman McCormack said Mr. Carter, as a private citizen, did not ask for or require the permission of the Bush administration to meet the former Iranian leader.