Iran offered to help support the cease-fire in Lebanon in talks Saturday with U.N Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and insisted that diplomacy is the only way to resolve Tehran’s nuclear dispute with the West.
The talks came two days after Iran defied a U.N. deadline to halt uranium enrichment, opening the door to consideration of sanctions to reinforce Western demands that the Islamic republic rein in its nuclear program and allay suspicions it is working on atomic weapons.
Before the Security Council discusses the issue, the European Union is taking another stab at diplomacy this week, and Annan said before arriving that he hoped sanctions could be avoided so as to keep from adding to tensions in “a region already subjected to a great stress.”
The tone from Annan’s first meetings in Tehran was positive. Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, described his talks with the U.N. chief as “constructive” and said “both sides agreed that problems should be solved through negotiations.”
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the Tehran regime supported the U.N.-mandated truce that ended the fighting in Lebanon, although he didn’t directly address the resolution’s call for halting shipments of weapons to Hezbollah, which is allied with Iran.
There was no immediate comment from Annan or other U.N. officials on the talks. Despite the upbeat tenor of the Iranian statements, the U.N. chief faced an uphill battle on both issues.
Iran’s president asserts right to nukes
Shortly before Annan arrived, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeated his insistence that the country won’t give up its nuclear program, state-run television reported. Iran says the program has only a peaceful purpose — to use nuclear reactors to generate electricity.
“Hyperbole against Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities by Western countries especially the U.S. will continue ... But the resistance and awareness of this nation will defuse all these plots,” Ahmadinejad told a crowd in Miandoab in northwestern Iran.
Annan was scheduled to talk with Ahmadinejad on Sunday, and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana planned to meet with Larijani in the coming days.
After an EU foreign ministers meeting in Finland, the bloc said Saturday that there was no deadline for the talks to produce results but warned it would not give Iran much time.
“We need some sessions — one or two, not more — to clarify some of the issues,” Solana said at a news conference.
A commentary by state radio said Iran hoped Annan could persuade the U.N. Security Council to adopt “new approaches toward Iran’s nuclear case.”
A hard-line reminder
In a reminder of Iran’s hard-line stance, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned that Tehran could block access by the U.N. watchdog’s inspectors if sanctions were imposed.
“Iran will revise in its cooperation with the IAEA if punitive measures by the U.N. Security Council are applied against Iran,” he said in a phone interview with state-run television.
In an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, Annan said sanctions aren’t the solution to all problems in responding to a question about U.S. calls for Iran to be punished for ignoring the Security Council’s Thursday deadline for suspending uranium enrichment.
“There are moments when a bit of patience produces lots of effects. I think that is a quality we must exercise more often,” Annan said in the interview published Saturday.
There are doubts the council would impose tough sanctions. Both Russia and China, which as veto-wielding permanent members of the council, have opposed to sanctions because of their strong trade ties with Iran.
Next issue: Hezbollah
Turning to Lebanon, Annan told Le Monde he wants Iran to use its influence in helping the international community disarm Hezbollah.
But Iran and Hezbollah deny Tehran supplies weapons to the Shiite Muslim guerrillas. But many in the West, Israel and the Arab world believe Iran provided the rockets fired by the guerrillas into northern Israel during the 34-day war.
Annan was in Syria, Hezbollah’s other top ally, on Friday. He said he secured a promise from Syrian President Bashar Assad to increase patrols along its border with Lebanon and work with Lebanese troops to thwart the flow of arms to Hezbollah.
But the promise was met with immediate skepticism from Israel and some in Lebanon.
The U.N. resolution that halted the Lebanon war calls on all countries not to supply weapons to any parties in Lebanon other than the Lebanese government.