A gathering of top diplomats from six major governments ended on Thursday with an agreement to pursue further atomic dialogue with Iran, the Associated Press reported.
The consensus among the six countries -- China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States -- ran against calls by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to end such outreach in favor of addressing an protracted nuclear dispute with Tehran by alternative means such as armed force, according to AP.
At three high-level meetings with Tehran this year, the group has sought to negotiate a halt to Iran's enrichment of uranium, a process with applications in development of nuclear weapons. The Persian Gulf regional power insists its nuclear ambitions are strictly nonmilitary in nature.
Iran earlier this year indicated it could stop generating higher-enriched uranium in return for curbs on measures aimed at cutting the nation off from the global economy. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the offer then as a "nonstarter," but the negotiating nations continue to see dialogue as "far and away the preferred way to deal with this issue," a high-level State Department insider said during a Thursday information session for journalists.
Washington and other governments fear Iran's growing stockpile of 20 percent-uranium material could enable faster preparation of bomb-capable uranium with an enrichment level of roughly 90 percent. Tehran has said the higher-enriched material is intended for medical applications.
The Obama administration remains uncertain "that Iran has made the strategic decision to really make a credible deal" with the five permanent U.N. Security Council member nations and Germany, the official said. "But there are some signals, because they were willing to discuss 20 percent, because we did have some serious discussions, that we might find a basis to move forward. We are not there yet."
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said participants in Thursday's session "discussed at length the need for Iran to take action urgently," AP reported.
The EU head envoy has communicated with Iran on behalf of the six negotiating countries. "I will from that meeting now be in touch with Iran to continue this process," she said in remarks reported on Friday by Agence France-Presse.
Ashton and senior Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili "will talk about what we discussed as possible next steps," the State Department insider added during the briefing. "We think we will ... continue to do this in a step-by-step process, which will include some additional consultations among ourselves, then consultations with the Iranians. And I would suspect at some point, we will indeed return to P-5+1 political directors track for a fourth round [of discussions]."
The six negotiating governments should address recommendations submitted by Iranian diplomats at a multilateral meeting in June, Iranian Supreme National Security Council Undersecretary Ali Bagheri said in comments reported on Wednesday by Iran's Press TV.
Jalili raised the same point during a recent encounter with Ashton, Bagheri said.
Tehran “insists on the full restoration of the (Iranian) nation’s nuclear right to use all capacities of peaceful nuclear technology,” the official added.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on Thursday said "the Iranian nuclear issue has reached a new, crucial stage," Reuters reported. "The relevant parties should remain committed to a diplomatic solution and begin a new round of dialogue as soon as possible," he told the U.N. General Assembly.
After Thursday's multilateral gathering, Clinton spoke with Netanyahu in private for one hour and 15 minutes, AP reported. The Israeli prime minister was anticipated during the exchange to make the case for a potential armed offensive against Iran.
“It was an open, wide-ranging constructive conversation,” the Washington Times quoted a ranking State Department operative as saying. “They had an in-depth discussion on Iran, and reaffirmed that the United States and Israel share the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
Iran is on track to obtain a nuclear-weapon capability no later than the second half of 2013, Netanyahu said in a Thursday address to the U.N. General Assembly.
Tel Aviv would not allow Tehran to complete nine-tenths of the uranium-refinement operations necessary to yield fuel sufficient for a nuclear armament, the Israeli leader said in comments reported by AP.
"By next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage," Netanyahu stated, marking a literal red line on an illustration of a bomb to make his point. "From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb."
Iran is bolstering its uranium refinement capacity, Reuters quoted an independent analyst as saying on Thursday.
"By sometime next year, Iran could potentially amass enough 20 percent enriched material that could -- if Iran decides to expel inspectors and convert the material to weapons grade - provide enough nuclear material for one bomb," said Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association in Washington.
"But enough material for one bomb doesn't constitute an effective, deliverable nuclear arsenal," he added.
An Israeli armed offensive against Iranian atomic installations appears less likely to take place in 2012 following Netanyahu's U.N. statement, observers said in comments reported by Reuters on Friday.
Still, the Israeli leader stressed the danger that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose.
"If [Iranian] terror networks were armed with atomic bombs, who among you would feel safe in the Middle East? Who would be safe in Europe? Who would be safe in America? Who would be safe anywhere?" AFP quoted him as stating.
"Given this record of Iranian aggression without nuclear weapons, just imagine Iranian aggression with nuclear weapons," he added in remarks reported by the London Telegraph. "To understand what the world would be like with a nuclear-armed Iran, just imagine the world with a nuclear-armed al-Qaida."
“I very much appreciate the president’s position, as does everyone in my country,” the prime minister said. The two leaders have appeared increasingly at odds over dealing with Iran, and they did not meet this week even though both appeared before the General Assembly.
Following Netanyahu's remarks, the White House stressed areas of U.S.-Israeli agreement on Iran. Still, a spokesman made no indication that Obama would respond to calls by the Israeli leader to establish a specific trigger for further action on the nuclear standoff, Reuters reported.
"As the prime minister said, the United States and Israel share the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," spokesman Tommy Vietor stated. "The president made that clear to the world in his UNGA speech this week. We will continue our close consultation and cooperation toward achieving that goal."
Netanyahu received backing after his speech from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, AFP reported.
"I join in Prime Minister Netanyahu's call for a Middle East of progress and peace," Romney said in prepared comments. "I join his urgent call to prevent the gravest threat to that vision: a nuclear-armed Iran."
Romney also made no reference to Netanyahu's demand for a concrete threshold on Tehran's atomic progress.
An Iranian diplomat on Thursday said his nation "is strong enough to defend itself and reserves its full right to retaliate with full force against any attack," according to AFP.
Netanyahu's U.N. statement included "baseless allegations" on the country, Iranian Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Eshagh al-Habib said.
The Israeli prime minister issued the comments "shamelessly and hypocritically," al-Habib added, noting Israel is itself assumed to possess atomic arms.
Meanwhile, any impending offensive against Iran could place the International Atomic Energy Agency in an "acute dilemma," Reuters on Thursday quoted an expert as saying.
The U.N. organization must ensure the safety of its officials conducting inspections in the country while also taking care "not to be seen to be facilitating an Israeli attack by withdrawing its staff in anticipation, either after an Israeli warning or simply by guessing when Israel might attack," one-time Australian foreign affairs staffer Trevor Findlay said.
Former IAEA Deputy Director General Pierre Goldschmidt added: "The risk to IAEA inspectors if they are present on a nuclear site when it is undergoing an airstrike is obvious."
"I can only speculate that Israel would indeed warn the IAEA beforehand as the Americans did before the Iraq war in March 2003," Goldschmidt said.
Between 5,000 and 80,000 individuals could die or endure harm due to an act of armed force against Iranian atomic sites, according to an assessment quoted on Thursday by Time magazine.
"It is highly likely that the casualty rate at the physical [nuclear] sites will be close to 100 percent," states the analysis by atomic specialist Khosrow Semnani. "If one were to include casualties at other targets, one could extrapolate to other facilities, in which case the total number of people killed and injured could exceed 10,000."
"Tens, and quite possibly, hundreds of thousands of civilians could be exposed to highly toxic chemical plumes and, in the case of operational reactors, radioactive fallout," Semnani warned in the study.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry has called in a formal evaluation for further punitive economic measures targeting Tehran, the New York Times reported on Thursday. Initial elements from the Israeli paper became public in a Thursday Haaretz article.
Elsewhere, Russia's top diplomat voiced concern over Middle Eastern political developments initiated by the "Arab Spring" uprisings of 2011, Interfax reported on Thursday.
"I think we are in an Arab autumn now, and I hope it will not grow into a nuclear winter," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. journalist Charlie Rose. "We should take it seriously that more and more countries are thinking of buying security guarantees by obtaining nuclear weapons."
"We are worried that the Iranian nuclear program may have some military dimension, because the IAEA has asked them some questions, which have not been answered for a certain period of time," the Russian foreign minister said.
Lavrov added: "We believe Iran will be more disposed toward cooperation if it knows that we are not cheating it when we say that, if it fulfills these requirements, it will become a full member of the [Nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty."
"The path from the full cycle of production of nuclear fuel to production of weapons-grade uranium is not very long," he said. "I am not an expert and I don't know how long this might take, but perhaps a year or so. But there is no evidence that Iran has made a political decision to do this."
"We all should take a practical approach," the official said. "If 'isolation' becomes the main word, if there are more and more sanctions and threats to airstrike Iran -- if this happens, this would immediately harm cooperation between Iran and the IAEA, which is currently monitoring all known nuclear sites in Iran and says that so far it has not detected a military dimension in the Iranian nuclear program."