Rice: Time is now to take Iran before U.N. Security Council

Seattle Times

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today “the time has come” to send Iran before the U.N. Security Council over its disputed nuclear program, but she seemed to acknowledge that U.N. action may not be swift.

Iran warned that it would intensify its nuclear development if referred to the Security Council.

“It has been our belief, and it is that of the Europeans as well and a number of other states, that the time has come for referral” to the United Nations body, Rice said following a meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini.

Calling the case for referral “very strong,” Rice said the United States will push for it at a special meeting of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency early next month.

She would not speculate on what action the Security Council might take, or comment on whether the United States would be satisfied with an outcome less punitive than international economic sanctions.

“The Security Council can then take up the matter at a later time, but the referral absolutely has to be made,” Rice said.

On another topic, Rice was guarded about how the United States would proceed if, as expected, the militant and political group Hamas gains a substantial or dominant foothold in Palestinian elections this week.

Rice repeated U.S. policy that Hamas is a terrorist organization, and she said Washington will not change that position. At the same time, she said Hamas poses a “practical problem” for the U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Hamas has not renounced violence and does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.

“It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that it’s hard to have negotiations with a party that you do not recognize its right to exist,” Rice said.

Israel, the U.S. and other nations are trying to come up with an approach to a Palestinian government with a large Hamas component. U.S. officials say they will not deal directly with Hamas members, but they suggest Washington would not shun the entire government.

On Iran, although Rice stressed the strength of international resolve to stop Iran’s march toward possible nuclear weapons, she was reminded that even strong military allies may not share the United States’ preference for harsh repercussions for Tehran.

Fini said he agrees that Iran’s case should go to the Security Council, which could take a range of steps up to broad trade sanctions or an oil embargo. But Fini began remarks on Iran by noting that Italy is Iran’s largest European trading partner, a reminder that economic measures against the oil exporter would have consequences far beyond Iran.

“The Security Council will evaluate the issue, we hope, with flexibility and with political farsightedness,” Fini said.

European nations that have been negotiating with Iran began drafting a referral resolution that stops short of asking the Security Council to impose sanctions. The draft resolution asks the body to press Tehran to reinstate a freeze on uranium enrichment and to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency investigation of suspect nuclear activities.

Iran claims its nuclear program is entirely devoted to developing the technology needed to make nuclear energy. The United States claims Iran is hiding a weapons program, or ambitions for one, and that its past deceptions warrant review by the Security Council.

Ending a 15-month hiatus during negotiations with European countries over a way to ensure Iran cannot make a bomb, Tehran removed IAEA seals from nuclear equipment Jan. 10 and announced it would restart experiments.

Israel’s defense minister implied over the weekend that if diplomacy fails with Iran, Israel could resort to military action to defend itself from a nation whose leader, hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has said the Jewish state should be wiped off the map.

European diplomats have reacted with alarm. Fini called Ahmadinejad’s statements unacceptable but added: “Being equally firm, we want to stress and reiterate to our Israeli friends that the only way to guarantee peace and security is the diplomatic route.”

Rice said that while President Bush always reserves the right to use force, U.S. military action against Iran “is not on the agenda because we have committed to the diplomatic course.”

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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