U.S. seeks to retain pressure on Iran
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — The Bush administration scrambled Wednesday to hold together a global alliance of suspicion against Iran, saying the clerical regime still has much to answer for despite a U.S. reversal of its claim that Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons now.
President Bush opened a trip to Nebraska with a warning about Iran — his second in the two days since U.S. intelligence agencies jointly concluded that Iran had long ago dropped active military nuclear ambitions.
Bush's top diplomat, who must explain and sell the shifted U.S. position among European allies later this week, pushed anew Wednesday for international solidarity on Iran.
No allies have told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice they want to back out of a U.S.-led drive for new sanctions on Iran, but the administration is worried that the new assessment weakens its leverage over Iran and drains the urgency from international efforts to roll back Iran's nuclear program.
The re-evaluation of the Iranian threat has overshadowed diplomatic meetings Rice attended in Africa.
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"It is the very strong view of the administration that the Iranian regime remains a problematic and dangerous regime and that the international community must continue to unite around the Security Council resolutions that it has passed," Rice said in Ethiopia.
Bush demanded that Tehran detail its previous program to develop nuclear weapons "which the Iranian regime has yet to acknowledge."
"The Iranians have a strategic choice to make," he said before a political appearance in Omaha "They can come clean with the international community about the scope of their nuclear activities," and accept U.S.-backed terms for new nuclear negotiations, "or they can continue on a path of isolation."
The idea of talking truthfully about a past illicit program is something the United States is pushing hard as it tries to make sure that a useful diplomatic coalition against Iran does not fracture. That alliance was built partly on the strength of U.S. assertions that Iran had an ongoing ambition to build a bomb and could not be trusted with sensitive technology that could speed that process.
Rice reminded reporters that the U.N. Security Council has already demanded that Iran halt its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities, "because those enriching and reprocessing activities permit, if they are perfected, a state to acquire fissile material for a nuclear weapon."
The National Intelligence Estimate essentially backs up Iran's long-standing claim that its nuclear program is peaceful, although it says Iran once had a covert weapons program. The assessment says the bomb program was shelved in 2003, before the U.S.-backed push for international sanctions took root.
"The report was a declaration of victory for the Iranian nation against the world powers over the nuclear issue," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Wednesday.
Rice has been working the phones to defend the administration's strategy on Iran and to explain the intelligence assessment released to surprise in Washington and abroad.
"It opens a window of opportunity for Iran now, because Iran obviously has been somewhat vindicated in saying that they have not been working on a weapons program, at least for the past few years," U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said.
The response from European partners who would lead any new negotiations with Iran has been modulated but generally supportive.
European and U.N. officials said the U.S. report bolsters their argument for negotiations, and that the world should not walk away from years of talks with an often defiant Tehran that is openly enriching uranium for uncertain ends.
They also said sanctions are still an option to compel Iran to be fully transparent about its nuclear program. Russia and China, which have never been strong supporters of the United Nations sanctions operation, could veto any new proposals.
Rice will see European counterparts during NATO meetings this week in Brussels. She will also come face-to-face with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who has become the public face of resistance to new sanctions.
On Wednesday, Lavrov said Russia had no evidence that Iran ever had active nuclear weapons ambitions.
"Data that we have seen don't allow to say with certainty that Iran has ever had a nuclear weapons program," he told reporters in Moscow.
On Monday and Tuesday, Rice called Lavrov as well as her British, Chinese, German, French and European Union colleagues to tell them "Look, we have got the right strategy," she said as she flew to Ethiopia.
Rice said it would be a "big mistake" to ease any diplomatic pressure on Iran despite the new U.S. findings. "It doesn't mean you should take the pressure off. It puts a premium on diplomatic efforts. I continue to see Iran as a dangerous power in international politics."
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