Reuters: U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to press Iran on Saturday to help shore up the Hizbollah-Israel ceasefire, but diplomats say the talks will also cover Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West. By Edmund Blair
TEHRAN (Reuters) – U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to press Iran on Saturday to help shore up the Hizbollah-Israel ceasefire, but diplomats say the talks will also cover Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West.
Annan’s visit to Iran takes place two days after the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), reported Tehran had failed to meet the U.N. Security Council’s Aug. 31 deadline to halt uranium enrichment.
The United States, which accuses Iran of seeking atomic bombs, said on Friday it was consulting European governments about possible sanctions against the Islamic Republic, but the EU signalled it wanted to see more dialogue with Tehran.
Ahmad Fawzi, a spokesman for Annan who has been on a week-long Middle East trip to bolster the Hizbollah-Israel truce, told Reuters by telephone from Qatar’s capital Doha the main purpose of the visit to Tehran was to discuss Lebanon.
But Fawzi said: “Certainly the issue of the (Iranian) nuclear programme will be visited.”
Iran is one of the main backers of the Lebanese Hizbollah guerrilla group, and Annan is expected to urge a commitment to a ban on exporting arms to the guerrillas as demanded by a U.N. Security Council resolution that ushered in the Aug. 14 truce.
Although Iran funded and armed Hizbollah in the 1980s, it now says its support is primarily moral and political. But analysts say Hizbollah is equipped with Iranian arms and used them in the 34-day war against Israel.
An Iranian official said Annan had requested meetings with top officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but gave no information on which ones had been arranged.
Annan has already visited Lebanon, Israel, Syria, another Hizbollah ally, and Qatar, the only Arab state currently with a seat on the U.N. Security Council. In Damascus, Annan said Syria promised to enforce the arms embargo on Hizbollah.
Before Annan began his tour, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said: “It is clear that Iran has an influence on certain parts of Lebanese society, and we would hope to use that influence positively.”
A first batch of 880 Italian troops will land in Lebanon on Saturday as part of U.N. plans to increase the existing 2,000 peacekeepers in Lebanon to 15,000 to help enforce the ceasefire. Italy will be the biggest troop contributor with 3,000.
Iran says its nuclear programme is solely for power generation and remained defiant on Friday while reiterating it was open to talks over the issue.
“If the Western countries try to prohibit our nation’s advance in peaceful nuclear technology by making frowning faces, they shall face this nation’s anger,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted by state TV as saying in a speech.
The United States is the driving force behind possible sanctions but Russia cast doubt on whether the Security Council could reach a quick consensus and said threatening Iran would lead to a “dead end”.
The five countries with permanent seats on the Security Council — China, Britain, France, Russia and the United States — plus Germany would meet in Berlin on Sept. 7 to discuss the way forward, the French Foreign Ministry said.
The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, said any sanctions should target Iran’s leaders.
“We are in consultations with the EU and other governments about what the first sanction resolution could be,” Bolton told reporters in New York, saying one option was to start with a small number of sanctions and escalate them over time.
“Another option is a very tough sanctions resolution as the first one. We haven’t made any decison on that point and I am not aware that any European government has made any decision on that point,” said Bolton.
In Europe, governments expressed varying degrees of disappointment at Iran’s stance but were united in keeping sanctions at arm’s length.
“We think it is possible to go forward with dialogue but it is important that the international community show Iran the necessity to change position,” said French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said her goal was a negotiated solution on the basis of an offer by Britain, China, Russia, France, Germany and the United States of a package of incentives if Iran ceased uranium enrichment.
Last November, Annan cancelled a trip to Tehran in response to a call by Ahmadinejad that Israel “be wiped off the map”. A U.N. official said Annan last visited Iran in 2002. Ahmadinejad was elected president last year.