Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday the Obama administration has concluded that the best way to pressure Iran to come clean on its nuclear ambitions is to impose sanctions aimed at the country's ruling elite.
"It is clear that there is a relatively small group of decision makers inside Iran," she told reporters traveling with her en route to Hawaii. "They are in both political and commercial relationships, and if we can create a sanctions track that targets those who actually make the decisions, we think that is a smarter way to do sanctions. But all that is yet to be decided upon."
Clinton spoke as officials from the six nations trying to persuade Iran to prove its nuclear intentions are peaceful said senior diplomats from the group are preparing to meet possibly later this week in New York to discuss the way ahead, including potential new sanctions.
She was not specific about those inside Iran who might be targeted with new international sanctions, but her allusion to Iranian leaders with political and commercial ties suggested that she was referring to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite group that is separate from the Iranian military and is charged with protecting the Islamic revolution that brought the clerics to power in 1979.
Elements of the Guard Corps are already subject to U.S. sanctions, as are individuals and firms deemed to be participating in or financing Iran's nuclear program. However, those penalties have not yet persuaded Iran to change its behavior and their effectiveness has been difficult to gauge.
Clinton said the administration's thinking developed as part of consultations with a wide range of other countries. She said the U.S. remains interested in engaging with Iran, even as it considers ways to pressure Tehran through sanctions.
Asked by a reporter what she made of recent hints from Iran that it might be open to new solutions on the nuclear matter, Clinton said, "We get a constant flow of feelers from the Iranians on approaches that they might consider. Other countries are reaching out to them all the time, asking if they will look at one or another proposal."
Clinton said no final decisions on sanctions have been made. Iran has balked at agreeing to curtail a nuclear program that the U.S. and other nations fear is aimed at building atomic weapons. Iran insists the program is strictly for peaceful purposes.
She made her remarks as her plane stopped at Travis Air Force Base to refuel on the first leg of a trip taking her to Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
In Washington, meanwhile, the State Department announced that Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, America's highest-ranking career diplomat, will travel this week to Moscow and Madrid for talks on Iran with Russian and European officials.
Spokesman P.J. Crowley said Burns will be in Moscow on Wednesday and Thursday and in Madrid on Friday. He also suggested that a meeting of senior diplomats from the so-called P5-plus-1 — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — was likely in the coming days.
Officials from two of those countries told The Associated Press on Monday that the meeting is tentatively set for New York on Saturday. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because their information was confidential.
While the officials offered no details on the discussions, the U.S. and its Western allies are expected to push for a fourth set of sanctions to punish Tehran for defying Security Council demands that it mothball its uranium enrichment program.
In New York, one well-informed diplomat said the Revolutionary Guard is a key target, but others in Iran's power structure could also be included. The group may also consider sanctions against companies and organizations controlled by the Revolutionary Guard that have links to weapons proliferation, the diplomat said.
The Security Council would likely ban travel and freeze the financial assets of individuals, and freeze the assets of any companies. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because discussions about the diplomatic moves have been private.
With Russia, and in particular China, skeptical of any new sanction efforts, the Americans have to tread carefully to maintain six power unity on how to deal with Iran.
Taking over the Security Council presidency earlier this month, China said that it opposes new sanctions against Iran. Like, the U.S. Russia, Britain and France, China, which relies on Iran for much of its energy needs, is a veto-wielding member of the council.
At the same time, Chinese U.N. Ambassador Zhan Yeshui said that political directors of the six powers would meet in mid-January to plan strategy on Iran.
The U.S. and other Western allies accuse Iran of working to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies the charge and says its program is for peaceful purposes.
The Security Council has imposed three rounds of sanctions on Iran over suspicions it is hiding nuclear activities and fears that it could retool its enrichment program from making low-grade material to produce nuclear power into producing weapons-grade uranium used for nuclear warheads.
Associated Press writers George Jahn in Vienna, Matthew Lee in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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