- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Iran warned yesterday that it would inflict “harm and pain” if the Bush administration presses its hard line against Tehran’s nuclear programs, but U.S. officials say a U.N. Security Council meeting on Iran next week could lead to tough new sanctions.

The escalating war of words came as the 35-nation board of the Vienna, Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) prepared to forward a critical report on Iran’s nuclear record to the Security Council for debate expected to start Monday or Tuesday.

Testifying before Congress yesterday, R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said the IAEA action proved that a U.S.-led diplomatic drive to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons was bearing fruit.

Iran’s leaders “miscalculated our ability to construct a strong international coalition,” Mr. Burns said.

The Bush administration insists it still wants a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear standoff. Such a resolution could be backed by sanctions and even military force if Iran does not comply.

But Iran, which insists its nuclear programs are for civilian power uses, warned it would strike back if attacked.

“The United States has the power to cause harm and pain,” Iranian IAEA delegate Ali Asghar Soltanieh told reporters in Vienna.

“But the United States is also susceptible to harm and pain. So if that is the path that the U.S. wishes to choose, let the ball roll.”

Mr. Soltanieh did not elaborate, but private analysts say Iran’s two most likely weapons are its massive oil and gas reserves at a time of tight global supplies and its close links to Shi’ite militias in neighboring Iraq.

Wayne White, a former top Middle East analyst in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, said Iran could cause trouble for the U.S.-led military mission in Iraq by its ties with radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and by supplying weapons and other aid to Shi’ite forces.

But with several former U.S. hostages from the 1979-80 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in the gallery, Mr. Burns told a House International Relations Committee hearing that Iran was hostile to virtually every U.S. strategic goal in the region, from Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to curbing terrorism across the greater Middle East.

“We believe with the current regime in Iran it is better to isolate them than engage with them,” he said.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a visit to U.N. headquarters in New York that sanctions rarely work, and Chinese diplomats cautioned against immediate punitive measures against Iran.

“I don’t think sanctions as a means to solve a crisis have ever achieved their goal in recent history,” Mr. Lavrov said.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian diplomat who heads the IAEA, said both Washington and Tehran needed to pull back in the confrontation.

“What we need now is a cool-headed approach, to lower the rhetoric,” he said. “The Middle East is a very volatile area.”

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