US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice carried strong NATO and EU backing for fresh UN sanctions against Iran's nuclear program as she headed to talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday.
It will be Rice's first face-to-face test with Lavrov since a US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) published on Monday suggested Iran shelved work on an atomic bomb in 2003.
Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht said NATO and the EU vowed late on Thursday to keep up pressure on Iran, saying: "Everybody agreed that we should not change our position" despite the report.
Russia and China suggested that the new intelligence undermined the US case for a third round of sanctions.
When she flew to Brussels on Thursday for meetings with EU and NATO diplomats, Rice argued that the report shows that international pressure caused Iran to change course in the past and would do so again.
"I don't see that the NIE changes the course that we're on," Rice said.
Rice added that Iran -- even if it is now known not to be actively pursuing a "weaponization" program -- remains dangerous because it refuses to suspend enriching uranium which could be used in the nuclear fuel cycle.
The US argument has carried the day in Brussels, De Gucht said.
The US has led efforts to impose tougher UN sanctions on Iran, while EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has tried to persuade Tehran to halt uranium enrichment in exchange for political and economic incentives.
"The reason we have to sanction on one hand and to deal on the other hand remains entirely valid," De Gucht said.
"The whole process of enrichment only makes sense when it's part of a process of producing a nuclear weapon, if not the whole process does not make sense," he said.
"Once they have the fissile fuel they can decide at any moment to produce an atomic weapon," De Gucht said.
The West fears the Islamic republic has been trying to develop a nuclear bomb covertly behind the screen of a civilian atomic program. Tehran insists it only wants to produce electricity by nuclear means.
The NIE report said that Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program four years ago probably came in response to international pressure, such as sanctions.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband reinforced the Belgian foreign minister's points yesterday.
"The issue for all of us is the enrichment program Iran has been pursuing in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and there was unanimity around the table that there is a clear choice for Iran," Miliband said.
"Iran can see the outstretched hand of the international community if they are willing to join the drive against non-proliferation," he said.
"If Iran insists on defying the will of the United Nations Security Council then there must be further sanctions," he said.
In Paris, France yesterday also pushed for continued negotiations to tighten international sanctions against Iran, saying its concerns about Tehran's nuclear program were not allayed by new US intelligence.
"Negotiations should continue so that we can reach possibly a worsening of the sanctions regime," French presidential spokesman David Martinon said.
"We need to increase pressure on Iran and the only way to do that is sanctions," he said. "For us, the sooner the better."
He urged Iran to cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency and suspend uranium enrichment.
"The demands of the international community are more pertinent than ever," he said.
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