- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2006

Hard line on Iran

Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns sounded unequivocal when we interviewed him at a luncheon at The Washington Times on Monday: Last week was the final deadline for Iran to declare it will suspend its enrichment of uranium, and all the veto-bearing U.N. Security Council members were ready to impose sanctions if it did not.

We were a bit surprised, given that State Department spokesman Sean McCormack had declared less than a week earlier that the United States was willing to wait “a few days, a few weeks” longer provided there was a possibility of achieving “a negotiated diplomatic solution” to the impasse.

But we had the quotes from Mr. Burns — on the record and on tape.

“For four months now, we’ve been waiting for an answer,” Mr. Burns said. “We’ve said, if they don’t suspend enrichment, we’ll take them to the Security Council and sanction them. We do believe we have Russian and Chinese support for that.”

Also during the interview, he had referred to a meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her counterparts from the permanent Security Council members and Germany, held on Sept. 18 in New York.

He said the ministers had agreed at that meeting that the first week of October would be the absolute deadline for Iran “to say yes or no. [Miss Rice] agreed with the Russians, Chinese and Europeans that if Iran said no, we would all go to sanctions together at the Security Council.”

Furthermore, Mr. Burns said, Iran would not be allowed to equivocate; any answer that fell short of a full agreement to suspend enrichment and accept a package of incentives would be taken as a no. “So I think you’ll have the answer by the end of the week.”

I had no problem with reporter Nicholas Kralev’s lead on the story: “The United States says Russia and China have agreed to join it in pushing for U.N. sanctions against Iran if it does not agree to suspend enriching uranium this week, a senior U.S. official said yesterday.”

Rising doubts

But our night editor, Gus Constantine, raised objections as soon as he read the story at the beginning of his shift. He was highly skeptical that Russia and China were ready to agree to economic sanctions on Iran, or even that Mr. Burns’ quotes justified a claim that they were.

I replied that I had my own doubts whether Russia and China would agree to sanctions, but I was satisfied that Mr. Burns had said they would.

Mr. Constantine held his ground so I toned down the lead, making it say: “The United States is confident that Russia and China will join it in pushing for U.N. sanctions etc.” Mr. Constantine was still not entirely satisfied, but I was satisfied that the lead was supported by the quotes.

That was Monday night. By Thursday afternoon, Iran had shown no sign of giving its answer and the Security Council consensus was looking much less solid; for several hours it was unclear whether a scheduled meeting in London of Miss Rice and her fellow ministers would even take place.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, meanwhile, was being quoted as saying that even if there were no deal by week’s end, “We should maintain the doors open to continue dialogue with Iran.”

And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was telling reporters in Warsaw that Russia was in no mood to impose sanctions.

Mr. Kralev was in London Friday night when Miss Rice met with Mr. Lavrov and the foreign ministers of China and three European Nations involved in the Iran standoff. They agreed to “discuss” sanctions at the United Nations this week.

No one had backed down, so Mr. Kralev wrote in Saturday’s paper that the meeting ended with “confusing accounts about what was decided.” Stay tuned.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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