US: No `snap judgment' this week on Iran nukes

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, welcomes the Iraqi delegation, as Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, right, and Iraqi parliament speaker, Ayad al Samarraie, second left, introduce them, during their meeting at the presidency in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, welcomes the Iraqi delegation, as Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, right, and Iraqi parliament speaker, Ayad al Samarraie, second left, introduce them, during their meeting at the presidency in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
By Robert Burns
AP National Security Writer / September 29, 2009

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WASHINGTON—The Obama administration, while skeptical of an early breakthrough in nuclear talks with Iran, indicated Tuesday it does not intend to swiftly press for stiffer economic sanctions.

In advance of six-nation talks with Iran on Thursday in Geneva, the State Department stressed its hope that the session would open the door to more in-depth dialogue about ways Iran could alleviate concerns that its emerging nuclear program may be secretly developing nuclear weapons.

If Iran is willing to address the nuclear issues, then there likely will be subsequent meetings, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

"That process will take some time," Crowley said. "We're not going to make a snap judgment on Thursday. We're going to see how that meeting goes, evaluate the willingness of Iran to engage on these issues."

Crowley noted that President Barack Obama has said he intends to take a few months to assess Iran's position and consult with U.S. negotiating partners before deciding what next steps to take.

In the meantime, the administration is already developing a sanctions plan that could target Iran's energy, financial and telecommunications sectors if Iran does not comply with international demands to clarify its nuclear program.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate banking committee, said Tuesday he will push legislation to expand Obama's authority to sanction Iran, with a focus on a range of financial institutions and businesses. Dodd said his bill also would extend U.S. sanctions to oil and gas pipelines and tankers.

Dodd said the proposed extra sanctions could be imposed if Iran does not respond to "our final diplomatic effort in the coming weeks." He said he has consulted with administration officials about sanctions possibilities and decided that Iran's energy industry -- a key source of Iranian government revenue -- is particularly vulnerable.

Dodd said his bill will include a set of incentives for countries to tighten their export control systems to stop the illegal diversion of sensitive technologies to countries like Iran, and to impose new licensing requirements on those who refuse to cooperate. The bill also would impose a broad ban on direct U.S. imports from Iran and U.S. exports to Iran, with exemptions for food and medicine.

Attending Thursday's meeting will be representatives of the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, as well as Iran. William Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, will lead the U.S. delegation. The talks will be run by Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief.

In what could be interpreted as a gesture linked to the Geneva talks, Iran on Tuesday permitted Swiss diplomats to visit three Americans who have been detained at an undisclosed location since crossing into Iran from Iraq in late July. Iran said they were arrested for illegal entry.

Swiss diplomats made the visit with the three Americans because the U.S. has no diplomatic presence in Iran. Swiss officials confirmed the visit but provided no information about the condition of the Americans.

Obama came into office vowing to encourage the Iranians to engage in direct talks on the nuclear issue, and although they have said they will attend the Geneva session, they have insisted their nuclear program is not negotiable. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has cast the Geneva forum as a chance to press the U.S. and its partners for unspecified radical changes in the world order and U.S. nuclear disarmament.

That gap in intentions makes U.S. officials doubtful that the Geneva session will produce a breakthrough.

"The president has said clearly that we're interested in a process," Crowley said. "We don't think that these issues will be solved in one meeting. I don't think that we'll get the full perspective of Iran's willingness to engage in one meeting."

Obama also has said diplomacy has its limits, which is why he has raised the prospect of imposing further sanctions on Iran at some point.

Fashioning a set of sanctions that could put Iran in a significant squeeze, while also winning the support of all five members of the U.N. Security Council -- including Russia and China -- is a daunting task. Russia and China, both of which do significant business with Iran, have been reluctant to impose sanctions, although the Obama administration say they are now agreed that Iran is obliged to come clean.

Existing U.N. sanctions, dating back to December 2006, have thus far failed to compel Iran to meet international demands that it clarify the nature of its nuclear program. The U.N. has not threatened military action.

The initial set of sanctions in 2006 focused on banning trade with Iran in materials, equipment, goods and technology that could contribute to Iran's uranium enrichment program. Iran says its program is intended to provide fuel for civilian power reactors, but the U.S. suspects it could be used to make nuclear weapons.

U.N. sanctions against Iran were expanded in March 2007 by banning arms exports from Iran and imposing a freeze on the financial assets of 28 individuals and entities. Sanctions were again extended in March 2008, restricting the import by Iran of dual-use technologies -- those that can be used for both civilian and military purposes.

U.S. officials said this week that the U.S. would expand its own penalties against Iranian companies and press for greater international sanctions against foreign firms, largely European, that do business in the country unless Iran can prove that its nuclear activities are not clandestinely aimed at developing an atomic weapon.

Among the additional sanction ideas being considered are asset freezes and travel bans against Iranian and foreign businesses and against individuals who do business in those areas, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the measures were still under review.

The proposed sanctions would largely focus on investment in Iran's energy infrastructure and development, the officials said. Until now, the sanctions have dealt mainly with companies and people suspected of buying or selling weapons of mass destruction or their components.

One important consideration is whether Russian and China, who have veto power as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, would go along with new sanctions.

Kurt Campbell, the State Department's top Asia policy official, said Monday that Chinese officials had discussed the matter with U.S. officials at last week's G-20 summit meeting in Pittsburgh. He said the Chinese asked for further details on what the U.S. knows about Iran's nuclear program and what role the U.S. thinks China can play.

"China has broad and diverse interests, like any great power," Campbell said. "And it faces now a situation in which it has several powers on its border that face specific challenges," including North Korea's nuclear activities, nuclear-armed Pakistan's insurgency, "and now a series of challenges near its territory from Iran. It's very important for China that this issue be resolved peacefully, but also that it be resolved."


Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.