U.S. President Barack Obama signalled yesterday that a response beyond the United Nations may be necessary to deal with Iran over the Islamic republic's latest bid to expand its nuclear program.
Expressing uncertainty about the level of support China will provide in the UN Security Council, which must authorize any legally binding international censure, Obama said Washington and its allies were "looking at a variety of ways" to rein in Tehran.
"The UN will be one aspect of that broader effort," Obama said. "How China operates at the Security Council as we pursue sanctions is something that we're going to have to see."
Obama spoke after China said Iran's move toward producing weapons-grade nuclear fuel should be met with a new round of diplomatic initiatives - not new sanctions.
Because China is a veto-bearing member of the Security Council, the comment by a Chinese Foreign Ministry official in Beijing effectively blunts calls by Washington and its allies for a fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran.
But taking action that sidelines the Security Council could be politically tricky for Obama on the world stage after he emphasized in his inaugural UN address as president last year that the United States had "re-engaged" the world body following the frequent arm's-length approach of the former Bush administration.
Obama did not specify what measures beyond the UN were under consideration, but so-called "coalition-of-the-willing"-style sanctions risk having limited impact. Such sanctions would be unlikely to be implemented by such neighbours as Turkey and Iraq without Security Council backing.
More hawkish voices in the United States have called for a naval blockade of Iran to deny it gasoline supplies. But opponents of such a move warn it could escalate into a shooting war.
Iran confirmed yesterday it was going ahead with its plan to enrich uranium to 20 per cent - ostensibly to produce material for a medical facility in Tehran.
The Iranian explanation has been met with so much skepticism that even Russia, a longtime ally of Iran, yesterday sent its strongest signal yet it will support a new set of sanctions.
"Iran says that it is not trying to have nuclear weapons, and that it wants only peaceful nuclear (capabilities), but the actions it is taking ... raise doubts in other countries, and those doubts are quite valid," Nikolai Patrushev, the hawkish secretary of Russia's Security Council, said in Moscow.
Obama acknowledged the Russian shift, which comes despite trade ties between Russia and Iran worth about $3 billion a year.
"One thing I'm pleased about is to see how forward-leaning the Russians have been on this issue," he said.
U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said yesterday Washington is aiming at having new sanctions approved "within weeks."
Iran has said it went ahead with its advanced enrichment plan because the West had failed to respond to its counter terms for the agreement, but added yesterday it was still willing to talk.