Washington: The United States on 23 May threatened new UN sanctions to punish Iran’s nuclear drive and urged US allies in Europe and Asia to isolate the defiant Islamic republic.
The warning came as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that despite earlier sanctions, Iran continues to enrich uranium, which can provide fuel for civilian reactors and can also make nuclear bombs.
Iran denied obstructing IAEA inspections, but White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the report by the United Nations atomic watchdog is damning.
The IAEA assessment “is a laundry list of Iran’s continued defiance of the international community and shows that Iran’s leaders are only furthering the isolation of the Iranian people,” he said.
The IAEA appraisal intensified tensions as a bristling US armada spearheaded by two aircraft carriers entered Gulf waters to support troops in Iraq and conduct training exercises.
The US Navy said the exercises were not directed at Iran, but Mustafa Alani, senior analyst with the UAE-based Gulf Research Centre, said it was no coincidence the powerful flotilla arrived on the day of the IAEA report.
“The aim of this step, which coincides entirely with the end of the UN deadline (to suspend enrichment), is to send a clear message to Iran that a military option is available to Washington,” Alani said.
The nuclear report came out just days before historic talks between US and Iranian envoys on Iraqi security. Both sides insist the nuclear issue is not up for discussion at next meeting in Baghdad on 28 May.
Three days after that meeting, at the behest of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany, European Union foreign envoy Javier Solana plans to hold new talks with Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani.
US Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns said Solana would renew a year-old offer from the powerful nations for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment in return for cooperation on civil nuclear energy.
“Should it turn down the offer again, I would think what you’d see is a strong drive” by the six powers “for a third (UN) sanctions resolution,” he said. After talks last week with outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair, US President George W. Bush warned of a push for new sanctions and said “Iran with a nuclear weapon is not in the interest of peace in the world.”
The US ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, reinforced the message on 22 May saying it is time for “additional pressure” on Iran. Burns, speaking at a Heritage Foundation event on US-India relations, also called on US allies to shun arms trading and political engagement with Iran, which he called the “central-banker for Middle East terrorism.”
“A business-as-usual approach by any country around the world, not just India but European countries, Asian countries, we think is unwarranted given the number of problems associated with Iranian foreign policy,” he said. Despite his administration’s tough talk, Bush came under new pressure from Congress over Iran.
Four influential Democratic lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wrote to Bush demanding a new national intelligence report on Iran be delivered to Congress. Reid said he was “troubled” by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, detention of foreign scholars and “support for violence in Iraq.”
“Congress needs to have greater confidence that the administration is not mismanaging Iran policy as it has mismanaged its Iraq policy,” he said. From Baghdad, US military spokesman Major General William Caldwell told CNN, there was “very credible intelligence” that Shiite-majority Iran was funding Sunni extremists in Iraq, including for roadside bombings against US troops.
Iran meanwhile restated a demand that the United States release five Iranians arrested by US forces in Iraq. At the White House, Johndroe rejected any link between those Iranians and the “unfortunate” detention of Iranian-American academics in Iran, which was reported on 22 May to have detained a fourth US-Iranian national.