Sunday, September 03, 2006

Iran snubs Annan and rejects nuclear plea

Alec Russell, The Telegraph:
Iran brushed aside Kofi Annan's efforts to mediate in the crisis over its nuclear ambitions yesterday even as Western powers struggled to maintain momentum for sanctions against the Islamic state.

The United Nations secretary-general left Teheran empty-handed after Iran's hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, rejected his call to heed Security Council demands for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment. READ MORE

In a further provocative move, timed to embarrass Mr Annan, Iranian officials said they would host a conference soon questioning the extent.

The announcement was a clear riposte to Mr Annan who had criticised a Teheran exhibition of cartoons about the Holocaust, saying the Nazi genocide was an "undeniable historical fact".

Mr Annan later sought to present his meeting in the best light. "On the nuclear issue, the president affirmed to me Iran's preparedness and commitment to hold negotiations," said Mr Annan. But he added that Mr Ahmadinejad "reiterated that he did not accept suspension before negotiations".

Mr Annan's emollient stance came 24 hours after European Union foreign ministers gave Teheran another fortnight to "clarify" its position. This underlined the difficulty that Washington and its allies face in trying to impose sanctions on Iran.

Senior US diplomats will meet their counterparts from Germany, France and Britain in Berlin on Thursday to seek agreement on a package of sanctions against Iran.

The plan is for a "graduating" programme in two or three stages, diplomats said. They know, however, that they face a dilemma in how to "hurt" the leadership without alienating the population.

The first stage would include the imposition of a visa ban on Iranian officials, a freeze on their assets and a ban on exports of nuclear-related materials to Iran. More severe measures including an economic embargo might follow.

But difficult negotiations lie ahead. Germany is said to want to rule out any chance of force being used to enforce the UN's will, a proposal resisted by America.

China and Russia, two of the five veto-wielding powers, have made clear they oppose retaliatory sanctions and punitive measures against Iran's leaders.

Teheran has shrugged off the threat, saying economic sanctions would hurt the West more than Iran as they would push up oil prices. But economists say curbs on access to European finance would badly hit Iran's economy.

US officials hope that sanctions would undermine Iran's regime at a time of high unemployment.

But US patience is running out. Diplomats say the earliest that the Security Council will consider sanctions is at the UN General Assembly in two weeks' time.

Christopher Shays, a US Republican congressman who has been critical of the Bush administration's foreign policy, said Iran had been strengthened by the stance of the UN and the EU. "The UN has showed itself to be somewhat impotent and Western Europe is tentative beyond measure," he told the CNN network.

John Bolton, America's hawkish ambassador to the UN, has an alternative strategy if the world body fails to toughen its stance. He is working on forging a "coalition of the willing" of US allies who could impose their own penalties.

It seemed that the only positive outcome of Mr Annan's visit to Teheran was a pledge by Mr Ahmadinejad that Iran would back UN resolution 1701 on Lebanon.

The resolution laid out the terms of the ceasefire ending the month-long war between Israel and the Iranian-backed Hizbollah militia.

The Iranian president "agrees with me that we should do everything to strengthen the territorial integrity of Lebanon", said the UN chief.