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Last Updated: Monday, 18 September 2006, 17:16 GMT 18:16 UK
Chirac's shift may end Iran unity
William Horsley
BBC world affairs correspondent

French President Jacques Chirac
Mr Chirac said he believes fruitful dialogue with Iran is still possible
France's President Jacques Chirac appears to have eased the world's political pressure on Iran over its suspect nuclear programme.

In a radio interview before departing for the UN General Assembly session in New York, Mr Chirac said: "I am never in favour of sanctions."

He called Iran "a great nation", and suggested that in the course of future talks the six leading nations now engaged with Iran on the nuclear dossier would renounce the threat of UN sanctions and Iran would renounce uranium enrichment.

His comments may reflect a growing belief among European leaders that persuading Iran to drop its troublesome nuclear ambitions can realistically be done only by staying on good terms with Iran, not by hostile pressure or threats.

The risk for the world powers involved is that they may be seen to make more and more concessions to Iran in the hope of fruitful talks, but fail to get a verifiable end to Iran's work on technologies that could lead to nuclear weapons.

In that case, the attempt to forge a common front to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons power might be lost.

Flouting UN demands

Iran was told in UN Security Council Resolution 1696 on 31 July that it must end its enrichment of uranium - a process which can produce weapons-graded nuclear fuel - or face possible economic and diplomatic sanctions.

US President George W Bush
The US has warned Iran against "stalling" over its nuclear activities
A new deadline of 31 August was set for compliance. But the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency reported before that date that Iran was still in breach of its obligations.

This week world leaders are to exchange views at UN headquarters in New York on what sanctions to apply if Iran continues to flout the will of the Security Council.

US President George W Bush had hoped to win agreement by now from the four other permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, for a package of sanctions that would increase the visible pressure on Iran to obey the UN's demands.

Mr Bush says one of his goals this week is to remind people that "stalling" by Iran should not be allowed.

But China, which relies heavily on Iranian oil imports, has proved reluctant to commit itself to any sanctions.

Meanwhile the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, has held behind-the-scenes talks with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani.

These have raised hopes that Iran might agree to "temporary" suspension of uranium enrichment, lasting at least a couple of months.

End of unity?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Iran has so far ignored all calls to end its enrichment programme

It is still far from clear if all this diplomacy is going to lead to visible progress soon. The UN powers face several serious concerns:

  • Will Iran comply with the UN demand to end uranium enrichment before talks on its nuclear programme begin?
  • Will Iran allow open UN inspections, which it broke off earlier this year, to verify compliance?
  • Will commitments made by Iran's nuclear negotiators be fully backed by the country's complex hierarchy of leaders, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
  • For most of this year America and Europe have placed their faith in a united front among the international community to persuade Iran by diplomacy.

    But President Chirac's latest remarks seem to come close to giving up the idea of collective sanctions that would demonstrate the world's determination.

    The coming days may reveal whether this foreshadows a breakthrough in the Iran nuclear dossier, or the end of the semblance of unity on one of the most pressing issues for world security.

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