U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not rule out accepting what may be a new opening from Iran to bargain with the West over its disputed nuclear program, but predicted Monday that U.N. sanctions will follow "if this does not work out."
Iran has told diplomats it may be willing to shelve its uranium enrichment program temporarily, perhaps for two months, during negotiations with the United States and other world powers over the future and scope of a nuclear program that Iran insists is peaceful. The Bush administration accuses Iran of hiding ambitions to build nuclear weapons.
Rice said Iran has not put a formal offer on the table, but she did not reject the idea of beginning talks framed by an Iranian deadline.
"Our clock would be running, too," she told reporters aboard her plane.
Rice is in Canada to thank Canadians for their generosity in taking in thousands of Americans stranded when their international flights were diverted on Sept. 11 five years ago.
"As to time limitations, I haven't heard any Iranian offer so I don't know what to make of that," Rice said. "But the question is, are they prepared to suspend verifiably so that negotiations can begin."
The United States has led the drive to haul Iran before the United Nations Security Council to face economic or other sanctions if it does not roll back its nuclear program. Slow diplomatic work to do that began after Iran missed an Aug. 31 deadline to stop uranium enrichment.
Uranium enrichment can lead either to fuel for nuclear power reactors or for weapons. International inspectors have been unable to determine whether Iran's program, begun in secret two decades ago, is intended only to produce electricity.
Iran has said it will not give up its right to the full range of nuclear technology and expertise, and has been wary of even a temporary pause in its development program for fear that negotiations would drag out indefinitely.
The West, and the United States in particular, say that pause is essential to prevent Tehran from gaining ground toward a weapon if that is their hidden aim. Iran did voluntarily suspend its uranium activities during two years of negotiations with European nations that fell apart last year without a deal.
The latest offer, with the added inducement of face-to-face talks with Iran's old enemy the United States, would give trade, aid and political benefits to Iran if it scales back its program and answers the West's concerns. Iran would still be able to develop civilian nuclear power.
"Nobody is going to become accustomed to a nuclear-armed Iran, that's why we're on this course," Rice said.
She predicted, as other Bush administration figures have done, that the Security Council would gradually ratchet up economic or political sanctions. The step-by-step approach is meant to offer Iran a way out as the pressure increases.
"I'm quite certain that you're going to see, if this does not work out, you're going to see sanctions and that those will be commensurate with Iranian behavior," Rice said.
The United States has had no diplomatic and few commercial or other ties with Iran since the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Rice proposed joining Europeans in bargaining with Iran face to face earlier this year to preserve harmony among the nations seeking a resolution to the escalating Iranian nuclear standoff and as a means to force Tehran's hand.
The diplomatic coalition against Iran has appeared ragged at times but has so far held together. The issue may finally be at a turning point if the Security Council takes up sanctions, a step that two of the council's veto-holding members have publicly said they oppose.
In the meantime there are signs that European allies are not eager to begin the sanctions discussion either, and may be seeking a way out. The European Union's foreign policy chief met with Iran's top nuclear negotiator this week in what was widely described as a last-ditch attempt to avert sanctions.
Surprise news that Iran was considering stopping enrichment activities for up to two months was disclosed to The Associated Press shortly after those talks by diplomats familiar with the discussions.