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Other Nations Wary of Tough Talk on Iran


President Bush today described Iran as an issue of grave national security concern. The rhetoric in Washington has been escalating as the U.N. Security Council considers how to push Iran to abandon suspected nuclear weapons programs.

The U.S. has laid out a diplomatic strategy to isolate Iran and its leaders, possibly with targeted sanctions. Russia and other countries are far more cautious, given the Bush Administration's record on Iraq.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.


For Sergei Lavrov, the discussions on Iran sound all too familiar. He was the Russian ambassador to the United Nations in the run up to the war on Iraq. Now, as Russia's Foreign Minister, he's being asked whether his country would back U.N. resolutions that could punish Iran for an alleged weapons program.

Mr. SERGEI LAVROV (Russian Foreign Affairs Minister): Well it looks so déjà vu, that, you know, I've been answering these questions regarding Iraq, and I don't believe that we should engage in something which might become self-fulfilling prophecy. We are convinced that there is no military solution to this crisis.

KELEMEN: Bush administration officials will not take the military option off the table, but they insist they are committed to the diplomatic path regarding Iran. The plan is to start slowly, with a Security Council statement that diplomats hope to approve next week, urging Iran to comply with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, is leading the effort.

Mr. JOHN BOLTON (United States Ambassador to the United Nations): The first question to ask is, do you care if Iran adheres to the resolutions of the International Atomic Energy Agency? And if you care, as we do, then you can understand why we're here at the Security Council pursuing multilateral diplomacy in an effort to thwart this threat to international peace and security by peaceful and diplomatic means. So if that's déjà vu, then so be it.

KELEMEN: Bolton sees Iran as a test case for the Security Council, and administration officials have been talking tough all week. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for instance, accused Iran of being a central banker of terrorism and said the U.S. may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran.

Ms. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Secretary of State): If you can take that and multiply it by several hundred, you can imagine an Iran with a nuclear weapon and the threat that they would then pose to that region.

KELEMEN: Listening to such rhetoric gives Joseph Cirincione pause. He's a nonproliferation expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and says the language is eerily similar to the talk about Iraq before the war.

Mr. JOSEPH CIRINCIONE (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): She calls Iran our greatest challenge. This at a time when U.S. soldiers are dying every day in Iraq and we're spending over a billion dollars a week, and the country's on the verge of civil war. But Iran is our biggest challenge? We have North Korea that actually has material for nuclear weapons, but she's calling Iran our greatest challenge.

KELEMEN: Cirincione accuses the Bush administration of exaggerating the threat.

Mr. CIRINCIONE: We have to stop Iran from getting this technology. But we have years to do this. And all this talk about point of no return, or moments in the next few months where Iran will have the capability, this is nonsense. Iran is a good five to ten years away from building a bomb. Who says so? Our own national intelligence estimate.

KELEMEN: Cirincione says getting a U.N. Security Council statement next week will be the easy part. But the tough talk in Washington could make U.N. diplomats nervous for the next stage of diplomacy, a Security Council resolution that could open the door to punitive measures.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.