Might withhold oil, Tehran hints

Iran faces sanctions for nuclear activity


VIENNA, Austria -- With the stage now set for a high-stakes U.N. Security Council debate next week on possible sanctions for Iran's nuclear program, Tehran warned the United States yesterday that it too can inflict "harm and pain" and hinted its weapon could be oil.

The sharp statement, which followed a warning this week by Vice President Dick Cheney that Iran could face "meaningful consequences," came on a day when the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency concluded a series of meetings on Iran and forwarded its report to the Security Council.

The report by the International Atomic Energy Agency's director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, found that after nearly three years of inspections, the nuclear agency remains unable to rule out the possibility that Iran has secret nuclear activities, which could include work related to uranium enrichment and adapting weapons to carry a nuclear bomb.

The IAEA board of governors reported Iran to the Security Council last month pending ElBaradei's report. The IAEA demanded, among other things, that Tehran cease all nuclear enrichment activity, answer all questions about its nuclear program and ratify a protocol that allows more wide-ranging inspections.

Iran ignored the demands.

Economic actions are unlikely in the near term from the Security Council. And yesterday the foreign minister of Russia, which has veto power, disparaged their use as a diplomatic tool. Yet the referral of Iran's case to New York opens a new chapter, one that Iran has sought to avoid.

Iranian officials have warned repeatedly that they might feel forced to respond aggressively if the Security Council takes action against them, but their strongest words were reserved for the United States.

A.H. Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, told the gathered ambassadors in Vienna yesterday: "The United States has the power to cause harm and pain, but the United States is also susceptible to harm and pain. So if that is the path that the U.S. wishes to choose, let the ball roll out."

When asked whether Iran, the world's fourth-largest oil supplier, would use its oil exports as a weapon to punish the West, Javad Vaeedi, deputy head of Iran's National Security Council, said: "We will not do so now, but if the situation changes we will have to review our oil policies."

Meanwhile, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, testifying before Congress, said Iran "directly threatens vital American interests" and Washington planned "a concerted approach [in the Security Council] ... that gradually escalates pressure on Iran."

At the same hearing, Robert G. Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said that a nuclear-armed Iraq is "intolerable."

Asked whether the administration was prepared to launch a military effort, Joseph replied that President Bush "has made clear that there are no options off the table."

Tehran might be more willing to use force - including chemical and biological weapons - if it believes its nuclear weapons protected it from retaliation, Joseph said. And it could use nuclear weapons "as a powerful tool of intimidation and blackmail," he said.

In Vienna, U.S. officials took a relatively measured tone. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Agencies here, Gregg Schulte, said the United States was seeking "a considered and incremental" approach.

Earlier in the week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said there would be no attempt to call for sanctions at this point.

As a first step, U.S. officials say, they will push to have the Security Council issue a statement by the council's president - a rotating post - urging Iran to cooperate with the IAEA.

Diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they would like to see a deadline for compliance and they will likely ask ElBaradei to issue a report on whether Iran complies with the demands set by the IAEA board in February.

Iran says it needs to conduct research on uranium enrichment to develop civilian nuclear power.

The West and Russia fear that Tehran's ultimate goal is to build nuclear weapons.

Alissa J. Rubin writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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