US sanctions push to shadow new round of Iran talks

NEW YORK (AFP) — Reinvigorated negotiations in Europe this week about Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme will be shadowed in parallel by a determined US drive to ready a list of sanctions to impose on Tehran if diplomacy fails.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana will have a strengthened mandate from the major powers when he meets with Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani for the latest in a series of negotiating sessions.

The talks are aimed at getting Iran to accept a package of economic and diplomatic incentives — including the first direct diplomatic contacts with the US in 27 years — in exchange for suspending a uranium enrichment programme that the West fears is aimed at producing nuclear arms. The negotiations were given a last chance to succeed after the US, under pressure from Europe and China, backed down on its demand for immediate sanctions against Iran for failing to meet an August 31 UN deadline for freezing the enrichment activities.

At a meeting on the sidelines of last week’s UN General Assembly session in New York, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did however convince her counterparts from Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia to set a new deadline for imposing sanctions if the Solana-Larijani talks fail.

Although the date was not revealed publicly, European officials in private put it in the first week of October.

European leaders have expressed renewed optimism the talks will succeed after Iran’s hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, voiced a willingness to suspend enrichment “under fair and just conditions” during appearances at the General Assembly.

US officials though remain deeply sceptical of the Iranian regime, suspicious that the Islamic republic is using the talks to buy time and advance its nuclear programme.

“There is no doubt that Iran for the last three years has used the cover of negotiations to continue to perfect the technical aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle,” John Bolton, the feisty US ambassador to the United Nations, said last week.

Washington, meanwhile, is pursuing its campaign to find agreement among the six for a list of graduated sanctions to build pressure on Iran in the event diplomacy falters.

The topic dominated a string of high-level meetings between Rice and her counterparts here in New York, to the point that one senior US official quipped that she had been seeing the Russians and Chinese for “breakfast, lunch and dinner” over the issue.

A meeting of senior diplomats from the six nations on Friday focussed on a first phase of sanctions that would target Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile sectors, according to a diplomat involved in the talks.

“The core of the sanctions would affect goods, services and people linked to the ballistic and nuclear sectors,” the diplomat said.

In addition to equipment supplies, the sanctions might also target travel by scientists or financing or research programmes, the source said.

But a senior US official said after the meeting that there was still no agreement on even the initial stage of sanctions and that US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns would continue virtually daily discussions with his five counterparts on the issue in coming days.

Solana and Larijani had been due to resume negotiations last week in New York, but Larijani failed to show up.

A senior US official suggested the postponement of the negotiations could be a sign of differences among factions in Tehran about how to respond to the incentives package by the six powers — Germany plus the five permament members of the UN Security Council.

“We may be seeing a great debate in Iran about how to react to the proposal made three months ago by the permanent five countries plus Germany,” the official said. 

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