By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON, Oct 25 (Reuters) - The Bush administration's decision on Thursday to slap more sanctions on Tehran is aimed at hiking diplomatic pressure over its nuclear program but experts say it will be seen by many as a step closer to war.
Talk of war and anti-Iranian rhetoric has mounted in recent months over Tehran's refusal to give up sensitive nuclear work the West says is aimed at building a bomb, with so-called hawks in the administration pushing for action before President George W. Bush's term ends in January, 2009.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while repeating that "all options remain on the table", says the focus is on diplomacy but Iran analysts said the new measures will be viewed by Russia and others as a precursor to confrontation.
"While this will probably be interpreted as move towards war, the people behind this probably are trying to avert military confrontation," said Iran analyst Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Russia, which has the power to block a third sanctions resolution the United States is pushing in the United Nations Security Council, ridiculed U.S. tactics on Iran.
"Running around like a mad man with a blade in one's hand is not the best way to solve such problems," Russian President Vladimir Putin said when told of the new sanctions.
Democratic presidential contenders John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich, both critics of the Iraq war, accused the administration of plotting a war against Iran.
"Today, George Bush and (Vice President) Dick Cheney again rattled the sabers in their march toward military action against Iran," said Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina.
Ohio Rep. Kucinich was more blunt: "This latest stunt is nothing more than an attempt to deceive Americans into yet another war -- this time with Iran."
Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council and commentator on Middle East Affairs, said Rice was "playing defense" and losing the battle against the Iran hawks.
"This decision only pushes Iran and the U.S. further into a paradigm of enmity that makes it harder for future administrations to resolve Washington's problems with Iran," said Parsi.
"Every time she (Rice) seeks to appease the hawks through measures like these, she undermines the prospects for diplomacy," he added.
In her announcement on Thursday, Rice tried to squash talk of war by saying Washington was still open to direct talks with Tehran, but with the longtime caveat that it suspend uranium enrichment beforehand.
Nonproliferation expert Joseph Cirincione advised Rice to drop preconditions and conduct direct negotiations with Iran, just as Washington did with North Korea before it had promised to give up its nuclear weapons program.
He said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could not afford to suspend his country's nuclear program because of strong domestic pressure.
"You have to find a compromise position here that allows the Iranian government to save face and slowly back down from this program," said Cirincione of the Center for American Progress, a Washington think-tank.
Sadjadpour said the United States should actively pursue more talks with Iran over Iraq, where both have common interests.
The United States has accused Iran of fomenting violence in Iraq and of using its Qods force to train and provide material support to militants who are attacking U.S. forces there.
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, has held several rounds of talks with his Iranian counterpart in Baghdad but Rice said recently these meetings showed no sign of progress.
"It's still a viable, open channel," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, although he added there were no plans at the moment for further talks.