WASHINGTON (AP) _ Irritated by the prospect of a huge European gas development deal with Iran, the Bush administration said Monday it will argue that such transactions undercut international bargaining power over Iran's nuclear program.
Also Monday, the State Department said it has again asked Iran for information about a missing former FBI agent. The United States says it has no information to substantiate reports that Iran may be detaining the man, but spokesmen do not rule out that possibility.
The prospective gas development deal between Iran and an Austrian firm would not violate United Nations sanctions against Tehran, and the United States cannot block it outright.
``We question whether or not this is the right time to be handing the Iranians those kind of, at the very least, public relations victories,'' State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Austria's OMV energy firm and Iranian officials announced a preliminary agreement to develop Iran's Pars gas fields. The agreement announced over the weekend could also open the way for a deal to build a liquifying plant for Iranian natural gas.
The announcement was the latest sign that European oil companies continue investing in Iran despite U.S. pressure. The United States wants its allies to scrap some arms sales and scale back trade to bolster the U.N. demand that Iran roll back its disputed nuclear program.
``We're going to talk to the Austrian government, talk to the firm involved and raise with them the idea that perhaps this is not the most appropriate time to be making or committing to making large investments in the Iranian oil and gas sector,'' McCormack said.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposed Monday to hold public talks with President Bush on a wide range of issues. The White House said Iran must abandon any nuclear weapon ambitions before talks could ever be held.
``Instead of offering televised debates or a media spectacle, the United States has offered actual discussions if Iran would only agree to what the international community has asked for repeatedly: stop uranium enrichment and reprocessing,'' Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House, said Monday. ``We're ready whenever they are.''
Two recent U.N. sanctions resolutions escalate international pressure on Iran but do not target the oil and gas sector. The Security Council sanctions are intended to coerce Iran to drop nuclear activities that the United States has long claimed are part of a covert weapons program. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.
Roughly 80 percent of Iran's revenues come from oil exports, and Tehran's creaky oil industry badly needs foreign investment to keep up production and exports.
The United States also accuses Iran of exporting terrorism and manufacturing roadside bombs used against U.S. forces in Iraq.
U.S. companies are barred from doing business with Iran, and a law passed in 1996 allows Washington to penalize foreign firms that do more than $20 million in business with the Islamic republic. That part of the law, which has never been applied, would bar such foreign firms from doing business in the United States.
McCormack said the United States would examine whether the prospective Austrian deal violates the law.
In the case of missing American Robert Levinson, McCormack said the U.S. renewed its inquiry with Iranian authorities over the weekend.
``There have been a lot of press reports suggesting that he may have been arrested by various factions of the Iranian government, the Iranian security apparatus,'' McCormack said. ``At this point, I can't validate those press reports, but certainly they do raise questions in our mind about where exactly is Mr. Levinson.''
The Iranian government told the United States last week that it has no information about Levinson, who has been missing in Iran for more than a month.
The two countries are communicating through Swiss intermediaries. Washington cut diplomatic ties with Iran following the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.