Sunday, July 09, 2006

N. Korea crisis hurts unity on Iran nukes

George Jahn, Seattle PI:
With the uproar over North Korea's missile tests, America and its allies are fretting that all the attention could hurt their effort to curb Iran's suspect nuclear program.

Some diplomats involved in both issues fear international focus is shifting too much to Pyongyang, which test-fired seven missiles Wednesday. The U.N. Security Council is working on a resolution on North Korea as the U.S. and other nations seek ways to engage the regime in talks.

Publicly, senior officials say Washington and other big powers can keep both balls in the air.

"I don't agree that one issue distracts from the other," John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told The Associated Press in a phone call from New York. "I think we are very focused on both of them and fully capable of dealing with both of them."

But privately, diplomats based in Europe said over the past few days that the North Korean crisis could push talks with Iran further down the international agenda. READ MORE

Iranian officials, who insist they are wrongly suspected of trying to develop atomic weapons, have said they will not respond before mid-August to an incentives offer extended by six nations seeking to get Iran to stop enriching uranium.

The six countries - the five permanent U.N. Security Council nations and Germany - want an answer by Wednesday, when their foreign ministers consult in Paris. But a diplomat said Iran is trying to delay its response past next weekend's Group of Eight summit hosted by Russia.

Before the summit, the U.S. and its allies on the Security Council - all G-8 members - "can apply pressure on Russia" to stand with the West in dealing with Iran, the diplomat said. That lever will be weaker after the St. Petersburg meeting, he said.

Like others interviewed, the diplomat agreed to discuss the Iranian and North Korean standoffs only if granted anonymity because of the sensitive nature of negotiations among all the parties.

The North Korean crisis is, in some ways, similar to international concerns about Iran's nuclear program - and that worries diplomats and European officials involved in trying to entice Tehran into negotiations because both involve the same major players.

"We are trying to negotiate two sanctions resolutions with the same countries involved in both cases," said a U.N. diplomat familiar with Security Council efforts to pressure both Tehran and Pyongyang to compromise. "This will be a very complicated challenge."

The United States, France and Britain support U.N. sanctions for both countries if they don't back down, while that is opposed by Russia and China, the council's other two permanent members that have the power to veto its actions.

As they did previously for Iran, both Moscow and Beijing suggest that pushing for sanctions quickly against North Korea could inflame tensions. And a sharp dispute over how to deal with Pyongyang could in turn exacerbate the differences over Iran.

Even before the North Korean crisis, Washington was frustrated with the slow pace of multinational diplomacy on Iran.

A second U.N. diplomat told AP that the Americans considered Thursday's informal meeting between European Union envoy Javier Solana and Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani a flop that failed to advance the six-nation effort to get Tehran to freeze uranium enrichment and start negotiations on its nuclear program.

Revealing his impatience, President Bush said Friday that diplomacy is "kind of painful in a way for some to watch because it takes a while to get people on the same page."

A European official said that while the Americans remained interested in a negotiated solution to the Iran issue, including joining in multilateral talks, "the negotiating mode is suddenly less valued" in Washington because of the unexpected North Korean developments.

And with the North Korean crisis now suddenly also on the G-8 agenda, some diplomats said Iran could be moved to the back burner, just days after being the main international focus of concern.

Iran's government warned Sunday that the G-8 nations should not make any decisions on its nuclear program without consulting it first.

"Any summit decision on Iran - if premature and incomplete - could harm the current positive trend of negotiations," Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said, referring to talks with the European Union about the incentives package.