Europeans criticize U.S. sanctions as potential risk to Iran talksNew U.S. sanctions against nine foreign companies accused of aiding Iran's weapons programs could signal a harder line toward Tehran by the Bush administration and could hinder diplomatic efforts by Europe to end the standoff over Iran's nuclear program, EU officials and analysts said Wednesday.
The companies include six in China, two in India, and an Austrian arms manufacturer.
Reacting to the sanctions, which apply to Steyr-Mannlicher of Austria, over its sales of armor-piercing rifles with scopes to Iran, the Austrian government on Wednesday defended the company and questioned the sense of the U.S. move long after the deal was completed.
The sanctions, announced Tuesday by the State Department, are part of a complex effort to cut off the flow of technology to Iran that could aid its weapons programs while pressing China and Russia to threaten action against Tehran at the UN Security Council.
EU officials said an increase in U.S. pressure on Iran could complicate the diplomatic efforts of the Union, which is trying to end the nuclear standoff with Iran while also acting as a mediator between Tehran and Washington.
Talks between Iran and Britain, France and Germany resumed earlier this month, making little progress, and are to continue in January.
Washington is pushing for Tehran to be brought before the Security Council, where it could face economic sanctions over the dispute. Russia and China, which have vetoes on the council, oppose referral, and the West has stopped short of forcing the matter.
A senior EU official said, "It is very important that the EU and Washington speak with a united voice and that the EU continue to take the diplomatic lead." But the official noted that the European Union was growing increasingly impatient with Iran over its intransigence. The official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said that Washington and Brussels were in close contact and had been taking a coordinated approach.
In talks last year in Brussels, Washington and European leaders brought their stances on Iran closer, with President George W. Bush giving tacit support to EU countries' negotiations with Iran after years of the United States' refusing to negotiate with Iran or to publicly endorse European diplomatic efforts.
Bowing to European pressure, Bush also agreed to offer limited incentives to Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, including dropping U.S. opposition to Iran starting talks to join the World Trade Organization.
But EU diplomats acknowledged that relations with Iran had cooled since then and that recent comments by the President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran that the Holocaust was a myth had taken relations to a new low. At a meeting this month, EU leaders said they might even consider imposing sanctions.
Rosemary Holis, an Iran expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, said the new sanctions suggested that the United States was allowing the EU's diplomacy to exhaust itself while casting around for new means to bring Iran into line.
"Washington is allowing Europe's diplomacy to run its course, but it has always been skeptical that diplomacy would work, and this suggests it is starting to take practical measures to tackle the problem with Iran," she said.
She added that Tehran appeared determined to continue its nuclear program and that threatening action against Iran at the UN Security Council could spur it on even more.
Austria's Interior Ministry spokesman, Johannes Rauch, said Wednesday that the delivery of 800 high-powered Steyr snipers' rifles to the Iranian police was legal from the Austrian point of view. He added that the Interior Ministry and Foreign Ministry approved the sale in November 2004 with the provision that it be completed by August 2005, The Associated Press reported.
It quoted Rauch as telling the Austria Press Agency that approval for further sales was "not likely" considering present tensions with Iran because of growing concerns about its policies, but that sanctioning Steyr months after the deal was completed made little sense.
China warned that the U.S. move would not help cooperation between the two countries on controlling the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and demanded that the restrictions be lifted.
"We are strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed to the U.S. government sanctioning Chinese companies," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. China, it said, " has always adopted a serious and responsible attitude on the anti-proliferation issue and has adopted a series of effective measures to strengthen export management and control."
Included in the latest sanctions are two enterprises closely tied to the Chinese military: China North Industries, known as Norinco, and China National Aero-Technology Import & Export, or Catic, a major producer of military aircraft. The sanctions will have little practical effect on most of the nine companies named. The Chinese companies are already barred from doing business with the United States.
But Adam Ereli, a U.S. State Department spokesman, called the move "an important and effective tool in constraining Iran's efforts to develop missile and WMD capabilities," in a reference to weapons of mass destruction.
"It does have an impact, I think, particularly in alerting governments to activity taking place in their countries and instituting measures or taking actions to prevent those kinds of activities," Ereli said.
Bush administration officials said they had no evidence that President Hu Jintao or other Chinese leaders were aware of the sales, and they said Beijing had been helpful in cutting off shipments of crucial technologies to the Iranians.
While the State Department announcement did not describe the technology exported to Iran, information that is classified, officials said none of it specifically dealt with nuclear weapons or the integration of Iran's nuclear program with its missile program.
Dan Bilefsky of the International Herald Tribune reported from Paris and David E. Sanger of The New York Times from Crawford, Texas. David Lague of the International Herald Tribune contributed reporting from Beijing.