The US and European states are preparing to consider additional sanctions against Iran to punish Tehran for failing to comply with UN demands to allow more time for negotiations on a possible third round of UN measures, diplomats said.
The UN still remains the "preferred route" of action to force Iran to halt its uranium enrichment activities, British and French diplomats said ahead of today's talks in Washington, where senior officials from the security council's five permanent members – UK, US, France, Russia and China – plus Germany will gather.
The US under-secretary of state, Nicholas Burns, said: "We are going ahead to try to sanction Iran again, and we hope very much to have the support of Russia and China and the other countries in the council for that."
Russia and China have made it clear they are opposed to UN sanctions at this stage, now that Iran has promised to answer unresolved questions about its past nuclear programmes by the end of the year. But by that time, Iran could have installed many more centrifuges at its Natanz plant used for uranium enrichment. The process can produce fuel for civilian reactors or for a nuclear weapon, depending on the degree of enrichment. Iran maintains that its enrichment is for peaceful purposes, but the US and European states suspect the civil programme is providing cover for a military programme.
The French Foreign minister Bernard Kouchner has already publicly warned companies like the oil giant Total and gas utility Gaz de France not to bid for projects in Iran. Yesterday, David Martinon, the French presidential spokesman, recognised that reaching agreement on new UN measures "could take time. It is therefore for this reason that we are thinking of additional measures".
Mr Martinon said European companies would be asked "not to pitch for new markets" in Iran. "They are recommendations which we hope each EU state would address to their companies which are present or which envisage having a presence in Iran," he said. He said the measures could be brought in without an agreement by all 27 EU members.
Mr Burns, the US undersecretary of state, made similar comments yesterday about additional measures outside the UN framework. "All countries should do their best ... to sanction Iran on their own according to their laws," he said.
At today's talks, the officials are expected to discuss the toughening of existing UN sanctions. They will consider extending the number of entities exposed to asset freezes and travel bans, constraining Iranian access to certain sensitive technologies and whether it is possible to target the economy more directly through export credit guarantees.
A main target of the earlier round was the elite Revolutionary Guards, the powerful organisation with varied economic interests whose armed wing has been blamed by the US and Britain for attacks on coalition forces on Iraq.
Amid heightened concerns that Israel may be considering military strikes aimed at halting the Iranian programme, President George Bush yesterday repeated that Washington remained focused on a diplomatic solution to the nuclear stand-off. "I have consistently stated that I am hopeful we can convince the Iranian regime to give up any ambitions it has in developing a weapons programme and do so peacefully," he said.