Iran 'war' warning overshadows UN nuclear talks

Published: Monday September 17, 2007

A French warning that the Iran nuclear crisis could lead to war heightened diplomatic tensions and overshadowed a key UN atomic watchdog meeting here Monday.

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei opened the general conference with a call for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment.

ElBaradei said it was "regrettable" that Iran had refused to follow UN Security Council declarations ordering Iran to halt its enrichment activities which can help the development of a bomb.

But ElBaradei did not mention French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's warning Sunday that the world should brace for a possible war over the Iranian crisis.

"We have to prepare for the worst, and the worst is war," Kouchner said in a French radio and television interview.

Kouchner called the nuclear standoff "the greatest crisis" of present times and said: "We will not accept that the bomb is manufactured," and hinted that military plans were on the way while insisting that a negotiated settlement was the priority.

Iranian media accused France of carrying out US policy over the dispute.

France's line on Iran has come much closer to Washington since President Nicolas Sarkozy took power in May. But US Defense Secretary Robert Gates took a more muted approach and said the United States feels "diplomatic and economic means is by far the preferable approach."

ElBaradei said he hoped a timetable agreed with Iran in August "for resolving all outstanding verification issues" would lead to Iranian cooperation that "would go a long way towards building confidence about Iran's nuclear programme, and could create the conditions for a comprehensive and durable solution."

"These verification issues are at the core of the lack of confidence about the nature of Iran's programme, and are what prompted actions by the Security Council" against Iran's enrichment programme, ElBaradei said.

Iran says its nuclear work is a peaceful effort to generate electricity but the United States leads Western countries in charging that Tehran is hiding the secret development of atomic weapons.

Washington fears that Iran may use the timetable deal it struck with ElBaradei as a delaying tactic to avoid facing new UN sanctions for refusing to stop enriching uranium.

US patience is wearing thin as it presses for more UN sanctions but ElBaradei is urging more inspections that could lead to talks on ending the crisis.

The US State Department said the six major countries working to resolve the controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program will discuss a draft UN sanctions text September 21 in Washington.

The IAEA conference also comes in the wake of an apparent Israeli attack on Syria September 6 that might be related to suspicions that Syria and Iran are buying nuclear material from North Korea.

This new development could envenom what is a regular feature of the IAEA general conference -- an effort by Arab states to get a resolution passed condemning Israel for possessing nuclear weapons.

Israel neither confirms nor denies reports that it has some 200 atom bombs.

Traditionally, a resolution is introduced but then withdrawn and postponed to the following year, in return for Israel agreeing to a call for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East.

"The Israeli threat resolution will gain more attention this year because of this added issue of Israel once again possibly taking Osirik-type action on a nuclear facility in another country," non-proliferation analyst Mark Fitzpatrick told AFP.

He was referring to Israel's bombing in 1981 of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in Osirik.

Fitzpatrick, a senior researcher at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said it was not clear if "this attack on Syria was really North Korea related or nuclear related or was it merely a warning to Iran that you are next if you don't suspend your programme."