AP: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice won broad support from NATO allies for a tough diplomatic line on Iran if, as expected, Tehran fails to meet Friday’s U.N. deadline to stop enriching uranium for its nuclear program. Associated Press
By PAUL AMES
Associated Press Writer
SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice won broad support from NATO allies for a tough diplomatic line on Iran if, as expected, Tehran fails to meet Friday’s U.N. deadline to stop enriching uranium for its nuclear program.
However, NATO ministers did not offer any specific threat of sanctions against Iran, in part to avoid a rift with Russia and China, which oppose such a move.
“On Iran, there was unanimity,” Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos told reporters. “Although the clear message to the Iranian authorities is one of firmness, we have to continue with the diplomatic path.”
The West’s nuclear standoff with Iran dominated the second and last day of the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting, which also discussed the violence in Sudan’s Darfur region and the alliance’s expanding peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed Iran with his NATO counterparts, but signaled no change in Moscow’s position. He said no steps should be taken that would jeopardize the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, which Iran has threatened to shut out if the U.N. Security Council takes action against the Islamic republic.
“Every effort should be made to ensure that our steps don’t undermine the agency’s opportunity to work in Iran,” Lavrov told a news conference. “Only with the work of the agency’s professional inspectors can we guarantee respect for the nonproliferation regime.”
Rice told the NATO meeting Thursday that the credibility of the Security Council would be jeopardized if it failed to take action in the face of Iran’s failure to comply with demands to halt uranium enrichment, which can produce fuel for a reactor or fissile material for a bomb.
Iran says its nuclear ambitions are entirely peaceful, but the U.S. and its European allies suspect that the Islamic republic is trying to develop atomic weapons.
Russia and China – which have veto power in the Council – are resisting calls by the United States, France and Britain for moves that could lead to sanctions on the Islamic republic if it fails to comply.
Asked if Russia would consider halting arms sales to Iran or suspending its help build a nuclear power plant there, Lavrov said that “there exist absolutely no bans concerning the delivery of conventional weapons or of peaceful nuclear equipment.”
Diplomats said there was wide support for Rice’s tough line among NATO allies at a closed ministerial dinner Thursday night, although no decisions on possible sanctions were taken. European diplomats said Rice reassured allies that the United States was seeking a diplomatic, rather than a military solution to the problem.
“The importance of the diplomatic process and the diplomatic procedures was underlined,” said NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
Rice also briefed the dinner on her visit to Iraq this week and diplomats said there was broad support for the incoming government under Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki.
Ministers stressed their determination to push through plans to expand the peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan into the country’s more dangerous southern and eastern regions, despite an increase in deadly attacks on foreign troops.
De Hoop Scheffer said ministers backed the use of “robust” force by their troops to deter further attacks. The NATO force is due to expand from 9,000 to 17,000 by July and up to 21,000 by the end of the year.
On Darfur, Washington is urging greater NATO backing for African Union peacekeepers with logistics, communications, transport, planning, intelligence and expanded training – including up to several hundred instructors and other experts on the ground in Sudan.
So far, NATO support has been limited to airlifts and a small training mission for AU commanders. NATO officials said any wider involvement would depend on requests coming from the AU or the U.N., which is expected to take over the peacekeeping mission in September.
They stressed that NATO combat troops would not be involved on the ground in Darfur, where the 6,000-strong AU force has failed to halt political and ethnic violence that has killed over 180,000 people, mainly of hunger and disease, and driven more than 3 million from their homes.
Associated Press Writer Alexander Ratz contributed to this report.