(new throughout with Khalilzad comments, previous WASHINGTON, changes byline)
UNITED NATIONS, Sept 20 (Reuters) - The United States expects the U.N. Security Council to impose new sanctions on Iran for its nuclear ambitions in the coming weeks, despite objections from Russia and China, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said on Thursday.
Iran has defied financial and diplomatic pressure from the Bush administration and its European allies to halt uranium enrichment. Major powers are due to meet in Washington on Friday to discuss a third U.N. Security Council resolution to toughen sanctions on Tehran.
In Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush said he still hoped to convince Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions through diplomatic means. But he said he would push for further sanctions against Tehran when he meets Security Council members in New York next week during the General Assembly session.
Khalilzad said the United States expected the issue to move from Washington to the Security Council within the next several weeks and that he expected an agreement in “the next few weeks.”
“That’s what we’re working towards,” he said in an interview with three news agencies. “The next few weeks are critical.”
The Security Council has passed two sanctions resolutions against Iran. Washington is pushing for a third, harsher round of measures, which China and Russia oppose.
While Britain and France strongly back the U.S. position, other Europeans have qualms about more sanctions.
Still, French President Nicholas Sarkozy has suggested punitive measures by the 27-member European Union if Russia and China block any council measures. He proposed targeting Iran’s financial, insurance and credit sectors.
Russia argues that the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency should be given more time to examine Iran’s nuclear program before further sanctions are considered.
Moscow’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, warned this week that new punitive measures could increase tension, be counterproductive and not resolve “this extraordinarily complex problem.”
Political directors from the major powers meet in Washington on Friday to discuss what could be included in a third resolution.
Led by Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, the senior diplomats come from Germany and the five Security Council nations with veto power: Russia, China, Britain, France as well as the United States.
Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only but the United States and others believe it is a cover for bombmaking.
The Security Council on Dec. 23 imposed trade sanctions on Iran’s sensitive nuclear and advance missile programs. On March 24, the 15-nation body froze the assets of 28 groups, companies and individuals and banned Tehran’s arms exports.
New measures under consideration include additional financial sanctions and an inspection of cargo to and from Iran to search for banned nuclear-related materials, diplomats said.
Although, major powers have assured Iran it would have fuel if it suspended enrichment, Khalilzad it was too risky for Iran to have industrial-level enrichment “given the record of this regime in particular.”
Calling Iran’s nuclear program “one of the most important issues facing the world,” he said new sanctions might convince Iran to suspend enrichment.
Bush told a White House news conference, “We are working with allies and friends to send a consistent message to the Iranians that there is a better way forward for them than isolation -- financial isolation and/or economic sanctions.”
“I believe it’s imperative that we continue to work in a multilateral fashion to send that message. And one place to do so is at the United Nations,” he added. (Additional reporting by Caren Bohan and Sue Pleming)
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