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U.S. plotting next moves on Iran

Nuclear activity could lead to U.N. sanctions

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WASHINGTON — The Bush administration said Wednesday a proposal by Iran for nuclear negotiations falls short of U.N. demands that it cease uranium enrichment, and the United States began plotting unspecified "next moves" with other governments.

At the same time, Iran contended it had offered "positive and clear signals" to resolve the dispute over its nuclear program.

Efforts by the United States and other nations could lead to U.N. sanctions against Iran unless it reverses course and agrees to a verifiable halt to enrichment activities that can be central to making nuclear weapons.

France took a firm and quick stand on Iran's proposal. Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said the Iranians must suspend uranium enrichment if they want to return to negotiations.

However, Russia's foreign ministry, evidently ambivalent, said it would continue to seek a negotiated solution. And China appealed for dialogue, urging "constructive measures" by Iran and patience from the United States and its allies.

The State Department, in a terse statement, acknowledged that Iran considered its proposal to be a serious one. "We will review it," the statement said in what appeared to be a conciliatory gesture to a government it regularly denounces as a sponsor of terror.

But the statement went on to say that Iran's response to a joint offer of U.S. and European trade and other benefits if the enrichment program was halted "falls short of the conditions set by the Security Council" — full and verifiable suspension of all uranium-enrichment activity.

"We are consulting closely, including with other members of the Security Council, on next steps," it said. The United Nations has set a deadline of next Thursday for a formal reply by Tehran.

President Bush met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the White House and then discussed Iran's proposal in a telephone call with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The call was initiated by Annan, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

The administration has cautioned Iran that it will seek sanctions in the Security Council if Tehran does not stop enriching uranium.

Administration officials have refrained from outlining what punishment they might have in mind. It could include economic or political penalties, perhaps international curbs on trade.

The Iranians' offer, which they portrayed as a major advance, appeared to be aimed at least in part at dividing the Security Council members with vetoes — the United States, Britain and France on one side and Russia and China on the other.

Analyst Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council, said sanctions can work because Iran's economy is vulnerable on several levels.

"But the U.N. approach is going to be tailored to be palatable to the Russians and the Chinese," he said.

"The problem is, we are facing diminishing options, and military action has to figure in there somewhere if all else fails," Berman said.

Iran met its self-imposed deadline Tuesday for responding to the U.S.-European offer, which includes the possibility of U.S. help for civilian nuclear programs — but only if Iran stops uranium enrichment.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee issued a report that concluded Iran was a strategic threat and a country focused on developing nuclear weapons capability. It also linked Iran to Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist groups.

"Iran's support of radical Islamists with weapons and money demonstrates in real terms the danger it poses to America and our allies," said the committee's chairman, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich. He said Iran "will not be satisfied until it poses a threat to the entire world."