Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday foreign ministers of major world powers will meet in New York as early as next week to discuss sanctions against Iran. U.S. officials believe Iran has been trying to string out diplomatic contacts on the issue in an effort to avoid sanctions.
Secretary Rice says the path to negotiations remains open to Iran despite its defiance of a U.N. resolution that gave it until the end of last month to end uranium enrichment and return to negotiations.
But she is also making clear that the window of opportunity is narrowing, and that the United States intends to press for sanctions at a meeting of the five Permanent U.N. Security Council member countries and Germany as early as next week in New York.
Rice disclosed plans for the ministerial-level meeting at a talk with reporters here late Wednesday with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Leaders from around the world will be at the U.N. for the new General Assembly session, and the Secretary of State said it will afford an opportunity to advance discussion of a sanctions resolution begun last week in Berlin by senior diplomats of the six powers. "We have to consult about it. We have to decide what the text will look like. There was a meeting of the political directors. There will be a meeting with the (foreign) ministers. We are working on that track. If the Iranians still wish to suspend, and begin negotiations, obviously that would be good thing. But given that they cancelled the meeting, I don't really know that that option is available," she said.
The Secretary's reference was to a meeting between European Union chief diplomat Javier Solana and Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larajani planned for Thursday but which was cancelled.
Solana and the Iranian envoy have had a series of meetings since the U.N. Security Council deadline on the Iranian nuclear program expired August 31st.
News reports quoting diplomats in recent days have floated the idea that Iran might be willing to suspend uranium enrichment for two months and engage in talks with the world powers provided they shelved sanctions moves at the U.N.
But officials here say there has been no formal Iranian proposal conveyed in the European talks. And State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack accused Iran earlier Wednesday of trying to string out the diplomatic contacts to avoid punitive action at the U.N..
"We've seen this game before from the Iranians. They want to stretch things out. They want to stretch it out. They want to say well, we'll have a meeting on Thursday. No, let's have a meeting next Tuesday. And it keeps going on and on and on. And at some point, the world has to say look: we've given you the opportunity here and it's time to act. It's time to act through the Security Council, and it's time to impose sanctions on Iran," he said.
The United States, which believes Iran has a covert nuclear weapons program, envisages graduated sanctions beginning with relatively mild penalties. But the process will not be easy, given reluctance over sanctions being expressed by Russia and China, and more recently by some U.S. European allies.
Secretary Rice said the major powers agreed as early as last June to pursue sanctions as part of a joint strategy, and in her words: we now have to deliver as an international community.
Israeli Foreign Minister Livni lamented what she termed international hesitation about Iran. She said recent events in Lebanon, where Israel battled Iranian-armed Hezbollah guerrillas, made it more clear that the world, in her words, cannot afford a nuclear-armed Iran.