(photo credit: AP)
The nations seeking to halt Iran's nuclear activities are working out a new deadline for Tehran despite continuing differences over possible sanctions, the French foreign minister said on Wednesday night.
With world leaders gathered at the United Nations, the United States had hoped to drive decisively this week toward political and economic sanctions against Iran after it missed an Aug. 31 UN Security Council deadline to halt disputed uranium enrichment that many believe is aimed at making a nuclear bomb.
But some US allies are balking. France has instead proposed a compromise deal: a simultaneous suspension of all threats of sanctions and Iran's uranium enrichment.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy pushed ahead with this plan Wednesday. He suggested that the United States and others support it and said they were discussing a possible new timeline. He also discussed it with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and said the Iranian agreed that "time is an important factor."
Douste-Blazy gave no specific date. But a senior French diplomat said the nations involved in nuclear talks with Iran are mulling an early October deadline for Tehran to agree to a simultaneous suspension of uranium enrichment and talk of sanctions.
The United States and Britain remained cautious about the suspension plan. A US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the confidential discussions, confirmed that the group had discussed a new timeline - but said sanctions are still on the table.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday: "I'm not going to talk in terms of deadlines," but added, "This cannot go on for very much longer."
She also reiterated the US position that Iran suspend enrichment before negotiations can begin.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett would not discuss a possible new date, either.
"What we are looking for is a clear and sustained and concrete signal that Iran wishes to negotiate," she told reporters. "Our patience, I think, is not unlimited."
A dinner meeting Tuesday with Rice, Beckett, Douste-Blazy and the foreign ministers of Russia, China, Germany and Italy produced little consensus about the next step, US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said. He said the diplomatic effort to counter Iran was in "extra innings."
The Americans have little choice but to give the Europeans a little more time, since Washington needs Europe on board for sanctions to be effective.
US-Iranian tensions are in the spotlight this week, with both nations' presidents speaking Tuesday to the UN General Assembly - and pointedly avoiding each other in the halls of the world body.
In his speech, US President George W. Bush said, "Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions," but said the US has "no objection to Iran's pursuit of a truly peaceful nuclear power program."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted in his speech that Tehran's nuclear activities are "transparent, peaceful and under the watchful eye" of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog. He also reiterated his nation's commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Progress hinges on talks between EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani. Larijani had been expected in New York this week, but Beckett said Wednesday that it appeared that he would not be coming.
She also said the ministers have authorized Solana to go anywhere at any time to meet Larijani.
Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi met the Iranian president Ahmadinejad later Wednesday, but no details of the talks were released.
France appeared determined to resist sanctions, despite mixed messages this week.
President Jacques Chirac shook up diplomatic circles with a proposal to drop talk of sanctions on Monday, then appeared to soften the stance after meeting Tuesday with Bush. Chirac also said Tuesday he was not interested in new deadlines for Iran.
Douste-Blazy, however, was eager to set a new timeline.
"We cannot let the Iranians ... gain time," he said. "We must have a response rather fast."
Iran hinted last week that it might be willing to suspend uranium enrichment. That was enough to sow new division among the nations seeking to stem Iran's nuclear program - and brake the push for sanctions.