The White House said on Thursday that this week's International Atomic Energy Agency report
nuclear program was "very alarming" and said it would continue to pressure Tehran to "change its behavior."
"They need to get right with the world and live up to their obligations with regards to their nuclear program. We will continue to pursue that going forward in the wake of this very alarming report," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Also on Thursday, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said military action against Iran could have unintended consequences, sounding the administration's strongest reservations about a strike since the release of the report.
Panetta told Pentagon reporters that he agrees with earlier assessments that a strike would only set Iran's nuclear program back by three years at most.
Panetta and Barak (Photo: EPA)
"You've got to be careful of unintended consequences here. And those consequences could involve not only not really deterring Iran from what they want to do, but more importantly, it could have a serious impact in the region and it could have a serious impact on US forces in the region," Panetta said.
Panetta, a former CIA director, said the IAEA report is in line with intelligence assessments that suggest Tehran is trying to develop its nuclear capabilities, but that there continues to be divisions within Iran over whether to build a bomb.
Asked what will happen if sanctions don't work, Panetta said, "I think our hope is that we don't reach that point and that Iran decides that it should join the international family." He said, however, that the US agrees that military action ought to be the last resort.
The US State Department said Wednesday that harsher sanctions for the Islamic Republic are in the works. State Department Spokesman Mark Toner said that Washington was consulting with Russia and three other permanent members of the UN Security Council – China, UK and France – as well as Germany over measures aiming to put "additional pressure" on Tehran.
But Russia's Foreign Ministry announced Thursday it is in agreement with China that Iran should not be subjected to new sanctions over its nuclear program.
At a meeting in Moscow, Russian and Chinese diplomats expressed "the mutual conviction that the application of new, additional sanctions against Iran will not lead to the desired result," the ministry said in a statement.
Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama's key Middle East advisor Dennis Ross
said he would resign after a period of turmoil in the Arab world and a difficult period in the US' ties with Israel.
Ross, a veteran US peace negotiator, said in a statement he had made a promise to his wife to return to private life after two years in the administration – and had outstayed that promise by a year.
Ross said in a statement that he was returning to private life with "mixed feelings."
"It has been an honor to work in the Obama Administration and to serve this president, particularly during a period of unprecedented change in the broader Middle East.
"Obviously, there is still work to do but I promised my wife I would return to government for only two years and we both agreed it is time to act on my promise.
"I am grateful to President Obama for having given me the opportunity once again to work on a wide array of Middle Eastern issues and challenges and to support his efforts to promote peace in the region," he said.
Carney said that Ross, a special assistant to the President, had played a key role at a "historic time in the Middle East and North Africa."
Ross played "a critical role in our efforts to apply unprecedented pressure" on the Iranian government and had also supported democratic transitions in the region, the White House spokesman said.
Carney added that Obama would continue to periodically draw on Ross's counsel going forward.
Yitzhak Benhorin, Reuters and AFP contributed to the report