EU urged to lead on Iran sanctions

By Mark John, Reuters

BRUSSELS — France’s foreign minister called on the European Union to take the lead in widening financial sanctions on Iran, insisting the world could not afford to wait for U.N. action to rein in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Bernard Kouchner last month sparked controversy by saying the world should prepare for a war with Iran and the Islamic republic summoned France’s charge d’affaires in Tehran on Wednesday to protest about his “extreme” remarks.

Major powers last week delayed a U.N. vote on tougher sanctions on Iran until late November at the earliest. Russia, which holds a veto in the U.N. Security Council, backed the case for more negotiations with Tehran.

In a letter to fellow EU ministers, Kouchner appealed to the 27-member bloc to start exploring new sanctions now.

“These new measures, from its most important commercial partner, should have the aim of increasing the pressure on Iran, in particular in the financial and economic area,” he said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters.

“Initially, we could add new entities, in particular in the banking sector, and new individuals to the existing European lists of asset freezes and visa bans.”

He urged EU foreign ministers to debate the next steps at an Oct. 15 meeting in Luxembourg.

“Time is against us, because each day Iran gets closer to mastering enrichment technology, in other words to having a de facto military nuclear capacity,” Kouchner said.

While France can count on support from Britain, Prime Minister Romano Prodi signalled Italy would resist any attempt to formulate EU sanctions outside the United Nations.

The West suspects Iran of making an atom bomb and has called on it to suspend sensitive activities such as uranium enrichment, and to submit its nuclear sites to inspections.

Tehran, the world’s fourth-largest crude oil producer, insists its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes.

Kouchner said the EU should continue its diplomatic efforts to encourage Tehran to suspend its enrichment activities and the priority remained securing a tough Security Council resolution.

“But as I was able to ascertain at the meeting that took place in New York on Sept. 28 … that negotiation will take some more time yet because of the positions of some of our partners,” he said.

The United States and France have been in the forefront of calls for a third round of sanctions, with possibilities including more financial and investment freezes, travel and visa bans, an arms embargo and restrictions on oil trading.

In a compromise last week, top U.N. powers asked EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana to hold more talks with Iran’s national security chief, Ali Larijani, while the U.N. nuclear watchdog looked at doubts about past nuclear activities..

Britain backs the push for tougher sanctions but diplomats said Germany continued to harbor doubts. Italy, a major commercial partner of Tehran, is also resistant.

“The doctrine of Italy is that there is one place where sanctions are decided, that place is called the United Nations. We stand by that doctrine,” Prodi told reporters in Rome.