President Obama vowed on Tuesday to slap “significant” new sanctions on Iran “fairly quickly” for stepping up its nuclear activities, as Russia expressed growing frustration with Tehran and signaled support for more penalties.
Mr. Obama’s comments, along with similar remarks by other Western leaders, came hours after Iranian state television quoted nuclear agency chief Ali Akbar Salehi as saying that enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity had started at the Natanz nuclear facility.
“What we are going to be working on over the next several weeks is developing a significant regime of sanctions that will indicate to them how isolated they are from the international community as a whole,” Mr. Obama told reporters at the White House.
Iran announced its planned higher level of enrichment on Sunday, effectively rejecting a U.N.-drafted proposal to sent its low-enriched uranium for further purification abroad and to get it back for use in a reactor it insists is aimed at producing medical isotopes.
Tehran wanted a simultaneous exchange of low- for higher-enriched uranium on its soil, but Western powers ruled out such an option because of its potential for cheating.
“They have made their choice so far; although the door is still open,” Mr. Obama said of the Iranians on Tuesday.
Although Tehran insists its nuclear program is intended only for peaceful purposes, the West fears that it is pursuing a nuclear weapon. Iran has remained defiant despite three rounds of sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council in recent years.
Mr. Obama said the new push to broaden those sanctions is “moving along fairly quickly,” though he did not give a timeline.
The group of six major powers negotiating with Iran includes the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
“If Iran insists on refusing to join negotiations, talks at the United Nations will be unavoidable, and we will then have to talk about new measures,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin.
Russia also issued a rare rebuke of Iran, apparently siding with its Western partners.
“Iran says it doesn’t want to have nuclear weapons. But its actions, including its decision to enrich uranium to 20 percent, have raised doubts among other nations, and these doubts are quite well-founded,” Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of Russia, was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
Mr. Obama suggested that China, which holds veto power in the Security Council, remains the only obstacle to new sanctions.
Even as British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, had assured him of Beijing’s determination to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Mr. Yang’s ministry made clear that China is against sanctions.
“I hope the relevant parties will step up efforts and push for progress in the dialogue and negotiations,” spokesman Ma Zhaoxu was quoted as saying.