Rice Outlines Next Steps in Iran Showdown

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Rice: Working on Iran

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice believes U.S. and European diplomatic efforts will soon bear fruit in the form of international pressure on Iran to desist from its nuclear program. In a wide-ranging interview with TIME on Monday, the secretary of state indicated that Washington is confident of carrying the support of a majority of the 35 members of the board governing the International Atomic Energy Agency for a resolution to refer Iran to the UN Security Council over its failure to disclose numerous aspects of its nuclear program. Still, Rice noted, U.S. and European representatives at the IAEA board meeting that opened Monday in Vienna are holding their fire in the hopes garnering near-unanimous support for the move in a body that typically operates by consensus.

"We think that it will end up in the Security Council if Iran continues down this road," Rice said. "The timing is a matter for diplomacy. When you have a consensus that makes sense, then I think you go with it. We have the votes now, but the question is, do you have enough of a consensus to send the right kind of message." Her caution reflects the difficulties that lie ahead if the administration presses for the Security Council to adopt economic sanctions against Iran — an option that veto-wielders Russia and particularly China, which buys a major share of its oil imports from Iran, are unlikely to easily allow.

Rice and her lieutenants lobbied hard to gain the support of Russia, China and India at the IAEA for a European resolution referring Iran to the Security Council to be considered by the IAEA board this week. But China, Russia and a number of developing nations on the IAEA board are inclined to give Iran more time to comply with its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The basis for referring Iran to the Council is its failure to disclose a variety of uranium enrichment activities, rather than the activities themselves, which are permitted under the NPT but require disclosure and monitoring.

The Bush administration, and the key EU states Britain, France and Germany, believe Iran's game is to develop all of the technologies allowed under the NPT to create most of the infrastructure for bomb production under the guise of a civilian nuclear energy program, which is why it has systematically hidden many suspect activities. The Europeans have spearheaded a diplomatic effort to broker a deal in which Iran would voluntarily refrain from nuclear fuel-cycle activities permitted by the NPT but which could be easily converted to production of weapons-grade material, in exchange for economic and political concessions. But that deal has broken down as the Iranians defiantly insist on their right to engage in all activities permitted by the NPT, which why the U.S. and Europe are now pressing for action by the IAEA.

Even though fuel-cycle activities are permitted by the NPT, as Iran will certainly argue in its defense at any security council showdown, Secretary Rice believes that won't wash: "Nobody trusts them." Referring to Iranian President Ahmadi-Nejad's speech to the United Nations Saturday, in which he accused the west of subjecting Iran to "nuclear apartheid" by declaring certain nuclear technologies off-limits to Iran, Rice said mockingly, "Maybe the whole world is wrong and we should all trust them but nobody does. And so their problem is they can argue all they want about what their rights are. The problem is they've gotten into a situation in which nobody believes it is safe for them to exercise those rights — if indeed they have those rights. I think their problem is not just coming into compliance but it is beginning to repair the sense that Iran is a threat to the international system because ultimately, if they keep doing what they've done here, people are going to be even more suspicious of what they're doing."

Rice acknowledged the Administration's frustration with the pace imposed by democracy, but believes it will nonetheless strengthen Washington's case: "We believe they should probably have been referred some time ago," she said. "But sometimes in diplomacy it takes time to build a consensus and you're stronger for having done that. Now, at some point people will have to act. But people continue to want to believe that there is a diplomatic solution out there, and there might be, because there are a lot of benefits on the table for the Iranians if they're prepared to take the European Union deal. This is an economy that desperately needs access to the international system and they're not going to get it while they're in this state."

The administration is also taking advantage of the consensus on Iran it has achieved with European nations to make clear that this is not simply an issue between the U.S. and Iran. "We are not trying to be in the lead on this one." Rice said. "Because it's the EU [they] walked out on. Our strategy has been that the EU offered to engage them in these talks. We've been in close contact with the EU but if there is a resolution we'd like it to be an EU resolution and I think we'll just consult with the EU about the timing of it."