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Six key world powers agreed Friday to discuss possible sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program but shied away from demanding that the UN Security Council take measures to punishing Iran.
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The United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia said in a joint statement after talks that they were "deeply disappointed" by Teheran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, a key step toward making nuclear weapons.
Apparently divided about how quickly to move, the powers stopped short of declaring European negotiations with Iran a failure, as some had expected them to do.
Reading the diplomats' joint statement, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said Iran had two choices when the United Nations demanded that it halt enrichment activities. "We regret that Iran has not yet taken the positive one," she said.
European foreign policy chief Javier Solana briefed the group on his stalled nuclear negotiations with Tehran. Beckett said the envoys were "deeply disappointed that he has had to report that Iran is not prepared to suspend its enrichment-related reprocessing activities."
She said they "will now consult on measures under Article 41 of Chapter 7 of the UN Charter."
Article 41 authorizes the Security Council to impose nonmilitary sanctions such as completely or partially severing diplomatic and economic relations, transportation and communications links.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the discussions on how to win Iranian compliance would take place at the Security Council, Russian news agencies reported. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told ZDF television the powers would begin drafting a resolution.
Iran insists that its enrichment of uranium is purely for peaceful purposes to be used for nuclear energy. But the United States and many European nations believe Iran is seeking to produce nuclear weapons.
The US and Britain are leading the push for sanctions against Teheran. To avoid alienating the Russians and the Chinese - both major commercial partners of Iran - any measures are likely to be relatively mild, including embargoes on missile and nuclear technology, and possible travel bans and other penalties on Iranian officials involved in their country's nuclear program.
Britain's UN ambassador said Thursday that he expected "the Iran dossier" to return to the Security Council in the next week, but Beckett set no timeframe for action.
The London meeting was disrupted by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's late arrival. She was delayed leaving Iraq because of mechanical difficulties with her plane, meaning the diplomats had little time to reach a consensus.
But even before the logistical problems arose, it was clear there were significant differences among the participants, with Russia voicing reluctance to move toward sanctions and Rice suggesting it was "getting pretty close to ... time" to take Iran to the Security Council.
"There is an issue of the credibility of the Security Council and the international system and you simply can't just keep talking with no outcome," she told reporters on her way to London.
Russia's Lavrov, who said Thursday that sanctions now would be "extreme," hinted Friday that Moscow might accept some action.
"We do not rule out additional measures" the Interfax news agency quoted him as saying in London.
But his deputy, Alexander Alexeyev, warned that it would be "counterproductive" to speak to Iran "in the language of threats and ultimatums."
Beckett denied suggestions that the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany had been unable to agree on a course of action.
She told The Associated Press that the international community was united in wishing to negotiate with Iran and urging it to suspend enrichment,
"None of us want to get involved in sanctions, but at the present time, Iran is not responding to probably the most generous offer that has ever been made by the international community," she told the AP.
She said the package of technological and political incentives which the six countries offered Iran in June was still on the table if it commits to freezing enrichment, which it has refused to do.
Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman traveling with Rice, said officials from the six nations will continue their talks in a teleconference on Monday or Tuesday.
The European-Iranian negotiations had been seen as a final attempt to avoid a full-blown confrontation between Tehran and the Security Council after it ignored an Aug. 31 deadline to suspend uranium enrichment or face punishment.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was defiant Thursday, saying his country would not be intimidated.