UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said on Monday the new U.S. administration would make Iran’s nuclear program a top diplomatic priority and would pursue direct talks with Tehran.
“We remain deeply concerned about the threat that Iran’s nuclear program poses to the region, indeed to the United States and to the entire international community,” Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters after 45 minutes of closed-door discussions with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“We look forward to engaging in vigorous diplomacy that includes direct diplomacy with Iran,” she said, in comments that were among the clearest indications that President Barack Obama wants to try a new approach in dealing with Iran.
The administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush was pushing for a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Iran for refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
But the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany -- known as the “P5+1” -- had put discussions on next steps with Iran on hold until the administration of Barack Obama was in office, council diplomats have said.
Although a senior U.S. official sat at a negotiating table with an Iranian official in Geneva last year, the Bush administration balked at the idea of direct nuclear talks with Iran, preferring instead to try to isolate Tehran.
The United States, European Union and other Western powers suspect Tehran is amassing the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Iran insists its nuclear ambitions are limited to the peaceful generation of electrify and refuses to freeze a program that it says is its sovereign right to have.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs later clarified Rice’s remarks, saying Washington will use “all elements of our national power” in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.
Gibbs said Rice was restating campaign comments made by Obama and should not be seen as suggesting a new diplomatic initiative by the United States.
In her first encounter with reporters at the United Nations, Rice gave no specifics about what lay ahead for Iran.
“Dialogue and diplomacy must go hand-in-hand with a very firm message from the United States and the international community that Iran needs to meet its obligations as defined by the (U.N.) Security Council and its continued refusal to do so will only cause pressure to increase,” Rice said.
Rice said the 15 Security Council members would take up the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday in the wake of Israel’s three-week military attack against Hamas militants in the Palestinian enclave.
She reiterated Obama’s position that what was needed to end the Gaza crisis was a “durable ceasefire” and for the border crossings to be reopened so emergency aid and development assistance can flow into the strip, which has been controlled by Hamas since 2007.
The new U.S. envoy, who was the State Department’s top Africa expert under former President Bill Clinton, said the new administration was “very deeply concerned about the ongoing genocide in Darfur.” Khartoum rejects allegations of genocide.
Sudan’s U.N. envoy Abdalmahmoud Abdalhaleem dismissed Rice’s comments about genocide, telling Reuters, “Maybe this is just a hangover from the old days.” He said he hoped Obama would keep his promise of change by pursuing “dialogue, not confrontation.”
Editing by Bill Trott