The United States and five other countries have tentatively agreed to meet this weekend to discuss what to do about Iran's nuclear defiance of the UN Security Council.
The meeting would bring together political directors from the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says 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.
U.S. officials are expected to press for that approach later this week when they meet at UN headquarters in New York with diplomats from Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
Washington and its Western allies are concerned that Iran is trying to retool its uranium-enrichment program from making low-grade material for nuclear power into producing weapons-grade uranium for nuclear warheads.
Tehran says its controversial nuclear program is only for peaceful civilian purposes, but it has rejected UN deals that would help prove that claim.
The UN Security Council already has imposed three rounds of sanctions against Iran over suspicions that it is hiding nuclear activities.
The United States, France, and Britain have been pushing for a fourth set of UN sanctions to punish Tehran for defying Security Council demands that it halt all uranium-enrichment activities.
But Moscow and Beijing have expressed skepticism about additional sanctions. With both Russia and China wielding the power to veto any UN Security Council resolution, Washington has to move carefully in order to maintain unity on how to deal with Iran.
China -- which relies on Iran for much of its energy needs -- said when it took over the Security Council presidency earlier this month that it opposes new sanctions against Tehran.
Aiming For Sanctions
Clinton says the upcoming meeting with the so-called P5+1 -- representatives of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany -- would explore "the kind and degree of sanctions" that should be pursued against Iran.
On January 11, Clinton told reporters traveling with her at the start of a nine-day trip across the Pacific that there is a "relatively small group of decision makers inside Iran" who maintain both "political and commercial relationships." She said the smart way to impose sanctions would be to target those who actually make the decisions in Tehran.
Clinton stressed that no final decision has been made on the scope or form of possible sanction. She said the Obama administration's thinking has been developed as part of consultations with a wide range of other countries.
Meanwhile, Washington announced that Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns will travel this week to Moscow and Madrid for talks on Iran with Russian and European officials.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Burns will be in Moscow on January 13-14 and in Madrid on January 15.
"[W]e are casting a net broadly in terms of our consultations with a number of countries on Iran," Crowley said. "It's a very important subject, it's a very urgent time, so it will come up in our dialogue with a number of countries. I would expect it to be a part of this discussion."
Although Clinton was not specific about those inside Iran who might be targeted with new international sanctions, her allusion to Iranian leaders with political and commercial ties suggests she was referring to the Islamic 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.
Others in Iran's power structure could also be included. Analysts say the Security Council would be most likely to ban travel and freeze the financial assets of individuals in the Iranian regime.
But the P5+1 may also discuss sanctions against companies and organizations controlled by the Revolutionary Guard that have links to weapons proliferation.
Elements of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps already are subject to unilateral 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.