The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council have agreed to start working on U.N. sanctions against Iran next week but failed to bridge differences on how harsh the penalties should be, diplomats and officials said.
They told The Associated Press that while the United States called for broad sanctions to punish Iran's nuclear defiance, Russian and Chinese representatives at a top-level Vienna meeting Wednesday favored less severe measures.
The diplomats and government officials demanded anonymity in exchange for discussing the confidential meeting of the five Security Council countries and Germany — the six powers whose repeated attempts to entice Iran to enter nuclear negotiations finally broke down last week over Tehran's refusal to give up uranium enrichment.
Reflecting the importance of the meeting, Russia, Britain, France and Germany sent top negotiators directly answerable to their foreign ministers, while the United States and China were represented by their chief representatives to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns participated via video hookup.
One of the diplomats, who had been briefed on the substance of the meeting, said that while Burns had urged broad sanctions — such as a total ban on missile and nuclear technology sales — the Russians and Chinese backed prohibitions of selected items as a first step.
As well, he said, the Chinese and Russian envoys had called for renewed negotiations with the Iranians in parallel to working on sanctions to punish Tehran for defying a Security Council demand that it freeze enrichment, a possible pathway to nuclear arms.
Burns "acknowledged the request" but did not say whether the Americans favored a renewed attempt to engage Iran in negotiations following repeated failures to coax it into agreeing to stop its enrichment activities, he said.
The differences reflected continued divisions over how harshly to penalize the Islamic republic for ignoring a Security Council deadline to stop all enrichment activities by the end of August. Russia and China, which have strategic and economic interests with Iran, have recently swung behind the Americans and Europeans in agreeing to the need for sanctions but have publicly opposed attempts to make them too severe.
"All agree for the need for sanctions but there are problems with how harsh they should be," said one of the diplomats, whose country is accredited by the IAEA.
He said North Korea and its claim to have tested a nuclear bomb was not directly discussed, but all participants agreed that juggling two nuclear crises had complicated international nonproliferation efforts.
Iran, OPEC's No. 2 producer of crude oil, is apparently ready to face the threat of sanctions because it is confident they will be more symbolic than damaging due to international concerns any tough penalties could move Tehran to retaliate by cutting off oil exports.
Restating his country's defiance, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday called possible U.N. sanctions against his country an empty threat and said the Security Council has no right to intervene in the country's nuclear program.
"They want to force the Iranian nation to withdraw from its nuclear rights, under a hollow threat," Ahmadinejad said in a speech in Shahriar, a suburb of Tehran.
"These three or four countries are bullying, they have no right to intervene. The Security Council has no right to intervene," Ahmadinejad said.
Ahmadinejad promised the crowd that Iranians would see "bigger victories" in the near future, but he did not elaborate.
The Security Council demanded an enrichment stop after the Iran ignored calls from the IAEA to suspend such activities until doubts about the country's nuclear program have been cleared. Uranium must be enriched before it can be used in either nuclear reactors or atomic weapons.
Senior EU negotiator Javier Solana met with top Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani over the past few weeks in a new attempt to persuade Tehran to suspend enrichment and start nuclear talks with the six-nation alliance. But those talks failed last week over Iran's refusal to freeze enrichment even for a limited time.
While the representatives of five of the six nations at the Vienna talks subsequently met with IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, the Americans did not attend, said a U.N. diplomat.
There was no reason given for their absence, but one of the diplomats speculated it could have been a show of U.S. displeasure with ElBaradei, whom Washington in the past has accused of being too soft on Iran.