Clinton plays down more U.S. sanctions on Iran now

WASHINGTON Wed May 20, 2009 7:28pm EDT

An Iranian missile that state media says is a Sejil 2 surface-to-surface missile is seen in front of a banner with a picture of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at an unknown place in Semnan, 228 km (142 miles) east of Tehran, May 18, 2009. REUTERS/Fars News

An Iranian missile that state media says is a Sejil 2 surface-to-surface missile is seen in front of a banner with a picture of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at an unknown place in Semnan, 228 km (142 miles) east of Tehran, May 18, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Fars News

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday played down the chances of more U.S. sanctions on Iran for now and suggested that if diplomatic efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions fail, multilateral sanctions may be better.

The United States accuses Iran of seeking to develop a nuclear weapon and hopes to persuade Tehran to rein in its nuclear ambitions.

Iran says its nuclear program is to produce electricity so it can export more of its valuable oil and gas, but it prompted more concern on Wednesday by testing a missile which defense analysts said could reach Israel and U.S. bases in the Gulf.

On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama for the first time set a rough timetable for his diplomatic outreach to Iran, saying that by the end of this year the United States should have a sense of whether the effort was making progress.

"Until we have tested, within the time period set forth by the president, where we think this engagement is going, I am not sure that adding new unilateral sanctions is really that helpful," Clinton told lawmakers when asked about the utility of the U.S. Congress imposing more sanctions on Iran.

"At some point it might very well be," she added. Clinton said part of the Obama administration's rationale for pursuing engagement with Iran was to increase the chances that its partners, notably China and Russia, may be willing to impose additional economic sanctions if the talks fail.

"We already have a lot of sanctions on the books but the most effective ones are the ones that we have been able to persuade a lot of our partners to pursue as well," she added.

"So, it's a little bit of a chicken and an egg issue. How we proceed with sanctions depends upon on how the engagement works," she said. "The fact that we do have some sanctions and that they express the will of the international community is a powerful tool in our toolbox."

Obama on Monday said he hoped to begin negotiations with Tehran soon, after Iran holds elections next month. Iran's leaders have so far largely rebuffed his efforts to reach out to them and toughened their rhetoric.

(Editing by David Storey)

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