UNITED NATIONS - The first talks at the United Nations on US proposals for sanctions against Iran began but could take a month or even two months before any resolution is adopted by the 15-nation Security Council.
"I'm not prepared to predict when they will conclude or not -- we're working to get this done swiftly within a matter of weeks in the spring," Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said before discussions opened with Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.
Thursday's six-nation talks were made possible by the consent of China, which gets 11 percent of its oil and gas from Iran, to consider new sanctions against Iran for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment that can be used for bomb-making, and discuss its nuclear activities with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Beijing's new UN ambassador, Li Baodong, emphasized the "dual track" approach, a combination of (as of yet unsuccessful) diplomacy, incentives and sanctions to convince Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and discuss its nuclear ambitions.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador, Vitali Churkin, whose country is also reluctant to impose sanctions, told reporters after the talks, "'You know that the consultation is still focused on the dual track approach. I don't think any of us want to impose sanctions. What we want to have is a diplomatic solution and all sorts of constructive proposals have been made to Iran so if Iran wants to negotiate, they should start to negotiate.''
US proposals, agreed with European allies and shown to Russia and China in early March, include sanctions against Iran's banking, shipping and insurance sectors, mainly those run by the Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Guards are increasing their hold on the Iranian economy as well as playing a leading role in brutally crushing any opposition. The draft also broadens the list of individuals facing a travel ban and assets freeze, diplomats reported. China and Russia, which approved three previous sanctions resolutions, are expected to dilute the measures although they exclude energy supplies.
One proposal last year, rejected by Tehran, was a fuel-swap that would allow Russia to enrich some of the uranium and France to process fuel rods for Iran's research reactor. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
The negotiations follow a scathing attack by Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against President Obama, calling him an "inexperienced amateur" who was quick to threaten to use nuclear weapons against U.S. enemies. He was reacting to new US restrictions on the use of nuclear weapons in the new Nuclear Posture Review that nevertheless left Iran and North Korea as potential targets.
"Obama made these latest remarks because he is inexperienced and an amateur politician," Ahmadinejad said on Iranian television, Reuters reported. "American politicians are like cowboys. Whenever they have legal shortcomings, their hands go to their guns."
In Prague, where Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and President Obama signed an historic arms reduction treaty on Thursday, the Russian leader said he was in favor of "secure strong sanctions" but that they should not bring hardship to the Iranian people. He said he had presented the American president with a list of what was and was not acceptable.
If the six powers agree on punitive actions, the other 10 Council members must support the measures and the United States wants at least 14 votes, expecting Lebanon to oppose or abstain as its government now includes the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group. But Brazil and Turkey, which have rotating seats on the Council, also have reservations.
Separately, both the United States and the European Union are considering further unilateral sanctions. But UN Security Council sanctions in the long run can have more impact as they apply to all states. Council diplomats said that one aim of the sanctions was to show the Iranian establishment it was isolated and that increased penalties, no matter how incremental, would become more costly than pursuing a nuclear arms program.
The next round of talks is expected next week. Despite the hype, especially from Washington, that negotiations were on track, the six delegations have been secretive about their date, time and location, leaving the press to ferret out the details.
Still, like Iraq's late President Saddam Hussein, having or pretending to have weapons of mass destruction, is often a step towards regional one-upmanship. "In some perverse way, Iran made (nuclear energy) attractive," said Mohamed ElBaradei, the recently retired director general of the IAEA. "Nuclear power, in many ways got sexy."