“We shouldn’t place too much emphasis on a threat of this kind,” Rice said on Fox-TV, referring to comments by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. “I think something like 80 percent of Iran’s budget comes from oil revenue, and so obviously it would be a very serious problem for Iran if oil were disrupted.”
Iran had previously avoided using oil as a threat in the standoff over its nuclear program, a confrontation that has grown in urgency since Iran resumed enrichment activities late last year in defiance of pleas from the United Nations, Europe and the United States.
The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, joined by Germany, said last week that they would formally offer Iran substantial incentives – including possible U.S. participation in multilateral talks – if it would suspend its uranium enrichment program. The six countries fear Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon.
Iran’s response has been largely defiant – it has refused to halt its enrichment work – although President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Saturday that Tehran would not prejudge the proposal.
But Khamenei appeared more peremptory Sunday, saying that Iran would not give in to “threats and bribes,” and calling it “an absurd lie” that Iran sought nuclear bombs. He declared friendship with Europe, but, in reference to the United States, said: “If you make a single mistake about Iran, the supply of energy will definitely be put in serious risk.”
And Ahmadinejad said that Iran would reveal details of the incentives and threatened penalties – details expected to be formally delivered within days by Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief – thereby rejecting a plea from the United Nations for diplomatic confidentiality. Ahmadinejad insisted that his country’s “right to nuclear technology and power is legal and definite, and we will not talk about these issues.”
He expressed a willingness, however, to discuss “the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and how to stop it.”
Rice repeated Sunday that Iran had a right to a civil nuclear program, but said that “you don’t want the negotiations to be used as a cover for continued progress along the nuclear front.”
She declined to reveal details of the offer, saying, “The Iranians shouldn’t have to read in the newspaper what is being offered to them.”
But while saying that Tehran would need some time to assess the offer, she added, “We will not allow Iran to drag this out.” Rice declined to set any deadline, but said the six powers agreed that “we really do have to have this settled over a matter of weeks, not months.”
Rice helped engineer the U.S. policy shift last week that potentially allows it to join talks with Tehran, conducted up to now by Britain, France and Germany. She was said to fear that the international coalition on Iran was close to collapse. China and Russia, both permanent members of the UN Security Council, had appeared increasingly resistant to calls for sanctions from the United States and others if Iran continued its enrichment activities.
Rice would not say explicitly on Sunday that Russia and China had agreed to impose sanctions if Iran rejected the latest offer, but she said that “we are absolutely satisfied with the commitments of our allies to a robust path.”
President George W. Bush has spoken by phone or in person to the leaders of the five other countries in the Iran group, and Rice met last week in Vienna with counterparts from those countries.
She said Sunday that Iran would be confronted with one package of incentives and another of tougher measures. Rice said U.S. partners were “committed to robust action on either path, as appropriate,” but that diplomacy was the strong preference.
“The important thing,” Rice said on Fox, “is here it’s a major opportunity, a sort of major crossroads for Iran.”
“We need to know whether negotiation is a real option or not, and we will soon know that,” she said on CBS-TV.
Rice also called for patience in dealing with the new Iraqi government, despite its inability to settle on new ministers for interior and defense at a time of sharply resurgent violence and intense sectarian conflict.
“Obviously, this is a very tough process,” she said. But, Rice added, “to have a government of national unity is at the core of solving the problems.”
Rice was asked about the incident Nov. 19 in the Iraqi city of Haditha in which a Marine unit allegedly entered several houses and killed up to 24 civilians, including women and children.
“I can assure you that the investigation will be thorough,” she said, adding that if appropriate, people would be punished.
As to a recent comment by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki that attacks on civilian targets by some in the multinational forces had become common – with some troops even killing “on a suspicion or a hunch” – Rice simply said that Maliki was a strong supporter of the coalition and had consistently worked closely with its officials.