(photo credit: AP [file])
Top diplomats from six key powers are scheduled to meet in New York on Saturday to discuss Iran's reaction to their proposal to defuse global fears over its nuclear program, with the United States pushing for new sanctions.
Political directors from the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany will meet behind closed doors to assess Teheran's response to their October offer to exchange uranium for nuclear fuel and to consider possible next steps against the Islamic republic.
After weeks of conflicting responses, Iran's Foreign Minister Manochehr Mottaki in mid-December accepted the proposal "in principle." But in what is almost certain to be a deal breaker, he spoke of exchanging the material in phases rather than all at once as called for in the plan.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday the Obama administration has concluded that the best way to pressure Iran to come clean on its nuclear ambitions is to impose new sanctions aimed at the country's ruling elite.
US Undersecretary of State William Burns, who will attend Saturday's talks, warned Iran of consequences if it does not comply with the international proposal to limit its uranium enrichment program.
Burns, who was is in Moscow for talks with Russian officials on Iran and other issues, said in an interview with the independent Gazeta.ru portal on Thursday that "we will ... need to begin to look at ways in which we can make clear the consequences of not responding constructively."
But with Russia, and especially China, skeptical of any new sanctions, the US and its Western allies have to tread carefully to maintain six power unity on how to deal with Iran.
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Taking over the rotating presidency of the Security Council in early January, China's UN Ambassador Zhang Yesui said Beijing opposes new sanctions against Iran for now because diplomatic efforts to bridge differences over the country's nuclear program are taking place.
China - which relies on Iran for much of its energy needs - is a veto-wielding member of the council along with the US, Russia, Britain and France.
Zhang's opposition means the council almost certainly won't discuss Iran
sanctions in January, but whether they may be open to future sanctions talks remains to be seen - and the Western diplomats will almost certainly be looking for clues during Saturday's closed-door talks.
The Security Council has imposed three rounds of sanctions on Iran over suspicions it is hiding nuclear activities and fears that it could retool its enrichment program from making low-grade uranium to produce nuclear power into producing weapons-grade uranium used for nuclear warheads. Iran denies the charge and insists its program is for peaceful purposes.
Under the UN plan proposed in October, Iran would ship most of its uranium - up to 1,200 kilograms of it - abroad. It would then be enriched to higher levels in Russia, turned into fuel rods in France and returned to power a research reactor in Teheran that produces medical isotopes.
The material in the fuel rods cannot be enriched to higher levels, denying Iran
the ability to use it to make weapons.
One well-informed diplomat said recently that the Revolutionary Guard would be a key target of a fourth round of sanctions, but others in Iran's power structure could also be included. Sanctions against companies and organizations controlled by the Revolutionary Guard that have links to weapons proliferation may also be considered, the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because all talks are going on in private.
The Security Council would likely ban travel and freeze the financial assets of individuals, and freeze the assets of any companies.
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