On a visit to the European Union designed to repair transatlantic ties, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Tuesday signaled the emergence of a potential new rift between key European allies and the United States, this time over how tough a stance to take on Iran's nuclear program.
In unusually blunt language, Powell said a draft resolution proposed by France, Germany and Britain for dealing with Iran was "deficient" because it specified no consequences for the Tehran government if it failed to cooperate fully with the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA.
"It did not have the trigger mechanisms in the case of further Iranian intransigence," Powell said. A State Department spokesman said the word "trigger" did not refer to any military action against Iran but to further diplomatic activity.
The European nations are banking on diplomacy and economic incentives to try to persuade Iran to abandon its suspected weapons program and submit to extensive international inspections. European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, sitting beside Powell, called it a strategy of "constructive engagement."
The schism over Iran threatens to again split the transatlantic alliance over some of the same issues raised by the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. Among the divisions are whether a tough international line would scare Tehran into giving up its alleged nuclear ambitions or make it impossible for Iran's conservative religious leadership to agree with the conditions without being seen as caving in, and whether Tehran is as far along in the quest for an atomic bomb as Washington says it is.
The IAEA's board is scheduled to meet Thursday in Vienna, and Powell said it was unclear whether a diplomatic accord could be reached by that time. If not, he told reporters aboard his airplane traveling to London, it might be better to have no IAEA decision at all.
The United States believes the evidence shows that Iran is well on its way to making a bomb. The Bush administration was outraged by an IAEA report this month that said its inspectors had as yet found "no evidence" that Iran's nuclear activities were linked to a weapons program, although it said such a goal could not be ruled out.
Moreover, Bush administration officials said, the IAEA has documented that for about 18 years, Iran did not comply with requirements governing civilian nuclear power programs.
Washington wants the IAEA to declare that Iran's nuclear program is not in compliance with Iran's commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a step that would send the Iran issue to the U.N. Security Council for action.
But the majority of the IAEA board members are reportedly reluctant to take that step without giving Iran more time to make good on its promises to the IAEA. Some fear a referral to the Security Council would be seen as punitive at a time that Iran is just beginning to cooperate, and could backfire.
IAEA inspections of facilities in Iran are scheduled to increase in the next few months. If Iran has not cooperated by the IAEA meeting in March, the board is likely to hand the matter over to the Security Council, a British diplomat said.
But Washington appears to be in no mood to coddle Iran.
Powell said Iran was "moving in the right direction," but signaled he wanted a much tougher line than the British, French and Germans were proposing.
"The resolution draft we saw earlier in the day was just deficient," Powell said. "And I know that even Dr. [Mohamed] ElBaradei [director-general of the IAEA] thought it was inadequate to the report he prepared. So there's a lot of debate and discussion going on now."
During Powell's visit, both he and his hosts tried to stress steps taken to repair the ties frayed by the Iraq war.
In a nod to Washington, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini noted a new EU requirement that all countries wishing to sign agreements with the EU pledge themselves to the principle of nonproliferation.
In response to a question from a journalist about public ire in Britain over the indefinite U.S. detention of British citizens at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Powell said he had heard the concerns expressed by fellow foreign ministers and "they reinforced the need for us to resolve these cases as quickly as we can."
He promised to take that message back to Washington.
The message is unlikely to escape President Bush, who arrived in London on Tuesday for a three-day state visit. Security has been heightened to protect the president not only against terrorist attack but also against embarrassment from the large anti-Bush demonstrations that began even before he landed.
Bush, Powell and their wives were guests of Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, and U.S. officials said a number of events scheduled outside the palace had been canceled due to security concerns.
Efron reported from Brussels and Farley from the United Nations.