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(photo credit: AP)
Armed with the full support of NATO allies, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will try on Friday to convince a skeptical Russia that it should back US plans to step up pressure on Iran to suspend its nuclear activities.
Having won NATO endorsement to stay the course despite a new US intelligence assessment that concludes Iran stopped its atomic weapons development program in 2003, Rice will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who has become the public face of opposition to new UN sanctions.
On the sidelines of a NATO meeting already beset by alliance differences with Russia over US plans for European missile defense and troop deployments in Europe, Rice and Lavrov will discuss Washington's surprising revision of its view of Iran's nuclear work. The National Intelligence Estimate, released Monday, credited intense diplomatic activity for Iran's decision on weapons.
"The point that I'm emphasizing to people is that it was international pressure that got the Iranians to halt their program," Rice said.
"This suggests that you ought to keep up that international pressure," she told reporters on her way to Belgium for her first face-to-face talks on the matter with foreign officials since the intelligence report became public.
NATO members agreed, reaching consensus over a working dinner Thursday that "we should not change our position," Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht said.
"There was unanimity around the table that there is a clear choice for Iran," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters Friday. "Iran can see the outstretched hand from the international community if they are willing to join the drive against proliferation.
"But if Iran persists on defying the will of the United Nations Security Council, then there must be further sanctions," he said.
On Thursday, the leaders of NATO allies France and Germany expressed similar sentiments, calling for a two-pronged approach of pressure and negotiations with Iran.
"I think we are in a process and that Iran continues to pose a danger," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Paris at a joint news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy said he backs new sanctions. "The threat exists," he said.
But Lavrov said Wednesday that Moscow had not seen any evidence that Iran had, in fact, ever had a nuclear weapons program, not even one that it had given up on four years ago. He also criticized the United States for its missile defense plans.
Still, along with China, which also has opposed new UN sanctions, Russia appeared isolated on Iran, which long has denied it is seeking nuclear weapons and declared that the US intelligence report was a "victory" for the country.
Rice said she saw no reason for major policy moves.
"I don't see that the NIE changes the course that we're on," she said.
"In fact, I would think given the assessment that Iran is indeed susceptible to coordinated international pressure that (this) is the right approach," she said.
The US has been successful in leading two rounds of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran and is pushing for a third set of economic sanctions if the country refuses to suspend uranium enrichment.
On the eve of formal alliance meetings Friday, Rice met with the foreign ministers of Italy, Belgium and Britain, as well as European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
On Friday, she was scheduled to meet with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, as well as Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Before the NATO decision, Rice said she would impress on her counterparts the need for Iran to disclose the nature of its alleged secret nuclear weapons program prior to 2003, returning to a theme addressed Wednesday by US President George W. Bush.
"We should also start to look at ways for Iran to account for what was happening before 2003," she said, without elaboration on what type of mechanism she had in mind, if any.
On Wednesday, Bush demanded that Tehran detail its previous program to develop nuclear weapons - "which the Iranian regime has yet to acknowledge."
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