A top EU aide backs Iran in feud over arms

Posted in Broader Middle East , Europe , Iran , Asia | 20-Nov-03 | Author: Thomas Fuller| Source: International Herald Tribune

No UN appearance necessary, he says

BRUSSELS - Reiterating a policy of engagement with Iran, the European Union's foreign policy chief said Monday that the Iranian government had been honest about its nuclear program and should not be made to appear before the United Nations Security Council.

The comments by Javier Solana highlighted the divergent paths taken by the European Union and the Bush administration, which says Iran has a covert nuclear weapons program.

"They have been honest," Solana said here on the sidelines of a meeting of European Union foreign and defense ministers. "Let's see if they continue all the way to the end."

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he disagreed with Solana's assessment.

"I wouldn't have gone quite as far," Powell told reporters in Washington, according to Agence France-Presse. The United States believes that Iran's nuclear development program "had an intent to produce a nuclear weapon," Powell said.

But he also said diplomatic efforts by the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany had been "very, very helpful."

The three foreign ministers visited Tehran last month and secured a promise that the Iranian government would stop enriching uranium.

On Thursday, the International Atomic Energy Agency will decide whether Iran has violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and whether it should be referred to the Security Council.

Solana said it was his hope that the agency would not recommend a Security Council appearance for Iran.

Solana's comments were in sharp contrast to testimony on Monday by Meir Dagan, the head of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency.

Speaking in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, Dagan said that Iran was now close to the "point of no return" in developing nuclear weapons and that the country's nuclear program represented "the biggest threat to Israel's existence since its creation" in 1948.

The comments were reported by Agence France-Presse.

The European Union has pursued a policy of engagement with Iran and is negotiating better trade and investment privileges for the country - contingent on certain "political" factors such as Iran's human rights record and its policies toward its neighbors.

"We will not conclude the trade and cooperation deal unless we have seen progress on the political side," said Emma Udwin, a spokeswoman for the European Commission.

In a separate development here on Monday, European Union defense ministers announced the formation of a defense procurement agency that will come into effect next year.

The agency will be based in Brussels and is intended to reduce "the waste that has bedeviled things until now," according to Antonio Martino, the Italian defense minister who was chairman of the talks.

The European Union spends half of what the United States does on defense but only has "10 percent of its capacity," Martino said.

The agency would work to avoid duplication among European militaries, he said.

Martino said the agency could also serve as a "venue" for defense ministers, saying that Europe needed "an independent planning capacity."

But it was not clear to what extent this agency would replace the Franco-German plan for an EU military headquarters.

Britain's defense secretary, Geoff Hoon, cautiously welcomed the plan for the procurement agency. "I don't believe it should be projectionist and I don't believe that it should automatically always be a European solution," he told reporters.

At a foreign ministers meeting, most of the 15 EU states and the 10 nations joining next May took the unusual step of expressing dismay that Berlusconi - whose country holds the EU presidency at the moment - was soft on Putin at the EU-Russia summit meeting in Rome on Nov. 6, officials said. The duration of the debate was also exceptional: Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, the chairman of the foreign ministers meeting, had to endure criticism of his boss' handling of Putin for 75 minutes.

The EU has condemned Russia's military actions against Chechen separatists as disproportionate.