U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday it was time for the international community to rally together to put significant pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear program and expressed optimism that, given time, tougher sanctions would work.
Sitting next to Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa, Gates made his second public rebuff in as many days to the Tehran government's assertion that its nuclear program was intended for peaceful purposes. A day earlier, Gates had told reporters in Turkey that Iran's nuclear ambitions were extremely dangerous and threaten all of Europe.
"If the international community will stand together and bring pressure to bear on the Iranian government, I believe there is still time for sanctions and (diplomatic) pressure to work," he told the Italian and U.S. press following his meeting with La Russa.
"But we must all work together," he said.
The United States and its Western allies have been pushing for a fourth round of U.N. sanctions to be slapped on Iran over its disputed nuclear program. But with Russia, and especially China, skeptical of any new U.N. penalties, they have to tread carefully to maintain unity on how to deal with Tehran.
In a move likely to deepen skepticism in the West, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday ordered his country's atomic agency to begin producing higher enriched uranium.
The production of enriched uranium is the international community's main concern over Iran's disputed nuclear program since it can be used to make nuclear weapons. Iran maintains its program is for peaceful purposes.
Iran and the West have been discussing a U.N. plan under which Iran would export its low-enriched uranium for enrichment abroad.
Speaking to a reporter on the sidelines of a conference of the world's top defense officials in Munich, German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg expressed the frustration of dealing with Ahmadinejad and the government of Iran.
"Today's statement shows that farce is being played out just like we have seen in the past, that the outstretched hand of the international community has not only not been taken but pushed back," Guttenberg said.
Gates said that "no one has tried more sincerely" to reach out to the Iranian government than President Barack Obama and that the international community has given Tehran "multiple opportunities" to assure the West that its intentions were peaceful.
Gates was reluctant to discuss what specific sanctions he thinks might be most effective, other than to say they should be focused on the regime in Tehran and not target the local population.
He also declined to criticize Russia and China for their reluctance on sanctions.
"Rather than single any country out, I'll just say that I think all of us could do more" to pressure Iran, Gates said.
Associated Press writer Desmond Butler in Munich contributed to this report.
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