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US expected to press for sanctions against Iran

Tension over nuclear development may lead to a freeze on assets

MOSCOW -- The United States will press other major world powers today to consider what it calls targeted sanctions against Iran as an April 30 deadline nears for Tehran to demonstrate to the UN that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons.

World crude oil prices topped $70 a barrel yesterday, the highest level in nearly eight months, amid heightened market fears that Washington might consider military action against Iran.

Speculation that the United States may be laying the groundwork for possible force is widely expected to be dismissed today at a meeting in Moscow of officials from the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia.

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has further roiled the nuclear debate by declaring that his country is testing a centrifuge that could be used to more speedily create fuel for power plants or atomic weapons.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been unable to verify Iran's assertion that its program is entirely peaceful, said yesterday that it would send a team of inspectors to Iran within two days to try to make a determination.

Officials at the IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog agency based in Vienna, refused to comment on the new statement about the centrifuges.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States wants the Security Council to be ready to impose targeted measures such as a freeze on assets and visa curbs. It is not seeking restrictions on oil and gas sales, to avoid creating hardships for the Iranian people.

Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said yesterday that Iran would not halt its program but would cooperate with UN inspectors as the April 30 deadline approaches for the IAEA to issue a report on Iran's compliance.

''We have always signified our willingness to allow inspectors to come to Iran and visit our nuclear sites. If there are still questions and ambiguities that need to be answered, then these should be answered," he said.

Some analysts familiar with Iran's nuclear technology said yesterday that Ahmadinejad might be deliberately exaggerating Iran's capabilities, either to boost his political support or to persuade UN watchdogs to back off.

''He was likely posturing for his own political advantage and playing to national sentiment. We have to remember that the nuclear issue is very popular in Iran," said Khalid R. al-Rodhan, an Iran nuclear analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The UN Security Council has demanded that Iran cease enrichment work, which the United States and some allies suspect is meant to produce nuclear weapons. But Russia and China, two of the council's five veto-holding members, have opposed punishing Iran. Russia's Foreign Ministry said yesterday that the Kremlin would insist today on a diplomatic solution to the standoff.

Ahmadinejad last week said for the first time that Iran is testing a P-2 centrifuge for enriching uranium. Such a device would be a vast improvement over the P-1 centrifuges that Iran says it has used to do small-scale enrichment.

Iran previously told the agency it gave up work on P-2 centrifuges three years ago. But the IAEA and some independent groups question whether Iran might have a parallel, secret nuclear program.

''If the statements prove to be true, it would be a very serious concern," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this article.

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