With the UN Security Council expected to begin deliberations in a matter of days regarding tougher sanctions against Iran, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Wednesday that these harsher measures were needed "in order to influence the Iranians to change their basic position."
"My personal view is that the sanctions that were already applied and other measures taken by the international community, including financial measures, are effective," Olmert told a Jerusalem press conference. He said these steps "influence and make an important contribution to what may eventually appear as a new perception of opportunities and realities for the Iranians."
Olmert said that the Iranians were not as close to the technological threshold needed to become a nuclear power as they claim, "but not as far as we would love them to be. So there is a lot that still can be done and ought to be done, and the sooner it will be done, the better it will be."
At the same time Olmert sounded a positive note, saying that there were "serious chances" that a concerted diplomatic, economic and political effort by the international community could "have an impact that may change the Iranian attitude." Olmert dodged a question regarding the red line the Iranians would have to cross that would prompt Israeli military action, saying that he did not want to define any "thresholds or timetables," and reiterated that he believed the goal of keeping Iran from going nuclear could be achieved through other means.
At the same time, he called on the international community not only to take practical measures to stop this threat, but to also come out firmly and unequivocally against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threats to wipe Israel off the map.
"No country in the world, which is a member of the United Nations, can hesitate or contemplate its position about this. Every nation has to take a very strong stand against anyone who threatens the annihilation of another nation," he said.
In Vienna, meanwhile, the UN nuclear watchdog finalized a report expected to confirm that Iran is continuing uranium enrichment activities - a conclusion that could trigger tougher UN Security Council sanctions.
Officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency said the report - by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the Vienna-based IAEA - would likely say that Iran has expanded enrichment efforts instead of freezing them.
The report, which was initially expected Wednesday but was moved back to Thursday, will be sent to the agency's 35-nation board and to the UN Security Council, which set a Wednesday deadline for a freeze and said Iranian defiance could lead to sanctions in addition to those imposed last month.
In moderate remarks directed at Washington, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the dispute "has to be decided peacefully with the United States." But other top Iranian officials used harsher language and none showed signs of compromise on the main demand of the US and other world powers - a halt to Iran's enrichment program.
"The enemy is making a big mistake if it thinks it can thwart the will of the Iranian nation to achieve the peaceful use of nuclear technology," Iranian state TV's Web site quoted Ahmadinejad as saying Wednesday.
On Tuesday, he said Iran was ready to halt its enrichment program, but only if Western nations do the same - something the United States and others with similar programs are unlikely to even consider.
The White House dismissed Ahmadinejad's call.
"Do you believe that's a serious offer?" White House press secretary Tony Snow asked. "It's pretty clear that the international community has said to the Iranians, 'You can have nuclear power but we don't want you to have the ability to build nuclear weapons.' And that is an offer we continue to make."
Calls for talks - voiced separately on Tuesday by Ahmadinejad and senior nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani - suggested an attempt to convey flexibility on the eve of the deadline.
But the officials did not offer what the Security Council is demanding - an immediate and unconditional stop to enrichment. Iran has long insisted that it will not stop its nuclear activities as a condition for negotiations to start.
The US and its allies suspect that Iran is using its nuclear program to produce an atomic weapon - charges Iran denies, saying its aim is to generate electricity. Enriched to a low level, uranium is used to produce nuclear fuel, but further enrichment makes it suitable for use in building an atomic bomb.
While telling reporters his country was prepared to deliver "assurances that there would be no deviation ... toward a nuclear weapons program," Larijani offered no new suggestions - and indirectly ruled out suspending enrichment, saying that was just a "pretext" to put political pressure on his country.
Larijani was even more direct in rejecting an enrichment freeze as a precondition for negotiations in talks with ElBaradei, according to diplomats familiar with the substance of their conversation.
"He ruled out suspension and said Iran was not afraid of (UN) sanctions," one of the diplomats told The Associated Press. The diplomat said Larijani told ElBaradei that Iran could consider an enrichment freeze only as a result of talks - and not before sitting down at the negotiating table.
Iran has rejected the Security Council resolution as "illegal," and said it would not give up its right to enrich under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
But no sanctions were expected immediately.
Discussions on a new resolution aimed at stepping up pressure on Iran to suspend enrichment are expected to start next week, a Security Council diplomat said in New York.
The council debate will focus on what new nonmilitary sanctions to include in a resolution, the European diplomat said. Possible new sanctions could include a travel ban against individuals on a UN list, an expansion of the list, economic measures such as a ban on export guarantees to Iran, and an expansion of the nuclear embargo to an arms embargo, the council diplomat said.
But Russia and China, both veto-holding council members with close ties to Iran, are likely to oppose economic sanctions or weapons bans. A travel ban was dropped from the initial resolution because of Moscow's opposition, so tough negotiations are expected, the diplomat said.
Striking a combative note after meeting ElBaradei, Larijani warned the United States against opting for force instead of negotiations over the issue of enrichment.
"If they ... move into the boxing ring, they would have problems," Larijani told reporters in response to a question about US pressure on Iran to give up enrichment. "But if they sit at the chess table, then both sides would come to a result."
With the US recently moving against Iranians whom it accuses of helping Shi'ite militias in Iraq and beefing up its naval presence in the Persian Gulf, Larijani's comments were seen as veiled warnings that any additional US pressure on his country would be met in kind.