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Iran tells U.S. allies it will escalate crisis if hit with U.N. sanctions

WASHINGTON—Iran has privately threatened Britain, France and Germany that it will escalate the crisis over its nuclear program "beyond Europe's control" in retaliation for any steps the U.N. Security Council takes to force it to abandon uranium enrichment.

Iranian diplomats delivered the warning orally in meetings Monday with foreign ministry officials in London, Berlin and Paris, said a U.S. official and a Western diplomat who spoke only on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

It was left unclear how or whether the Islamic regime would fulfill its threat. Germany and France are Iran's largest trading partners.

The Iranians could resort to the same measures they could use to carry out a threat to cause "harm and pain" to the United States, including terrorism and disruptions of global petroleum supplies. Iran is the world's fourth-largest oil producer.

"They were not specific" about retaliatory steps they might take, the Western diplomat said. "It was difficult to interpret. It was all based upon the brinkmanship rhetoric that we've come to expect from them."

Meanwhile, the veto-wielding Security Council members—the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China—failed Wednesday to agree on a draft statement designed to step up pressure on Iran if it doesn't heed demands that it suspend all uranium-enrichment work. The process produces low-enriched uranium for power plants—Iran's professed goal—and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, which U.S. and European officials contend is the true purpose of the Iranian program.

The U.N. negotiations were to continue, and U.S. and European officials said they were optimistic that an agreement could be reached.

Iran insists that it has the right to peaceful enrichment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the key safeguard of the global system designed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. But it's admitted that it hid its project, including purchases of weapons-related know-how and technology from a smuggling ring, from U.N. monitors for 18 years.

The Security Council has the power to slap economic and political sanctions on Iran. The United States says it would seek such action only as a final response to persistent intransigence. Russia and China oppose sanctions.

The U.S. official said the Bush administration was told that the Iranian warnings delivered in London, Berlin and Paris threatened "escalation beyond Europe's control" if the Security Council approved "coercive measures."

"They also threatened that if attacked, Iran would no longer follow `certain NPT rules,' presumably including rules against acquiring nuclear weapons," the U.S. official said. "It looks to us like Iran has made a clear decision to up the rhetorical ante, calculating that fears of military conflict will compel Europe and Russia to back down."

President Bush has refused to rule out using military force against Iranian nuclear facilities, an option that the Europeans and Russia oppose.

"It was quite clear from the messages ... that they were demonstrating no flexibility in their position," the Western diplomat said. "To some extent, they were suggesting there was still hope of a negotiation, but it would only be on their terms."

The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors referred Iran to the Security Council after it defied demands to refreeze uranium-enrichment work and to disclose its programs fully to international inspectors.

The draft statement, proposed by France and Britain, reiterates those demands. It would require IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei to report to the council on Iranian compliance within 14 days, according to a copy obtained by Knight Ridder.

Russian and Chinese officials opposed the proposal because they believe it would shift the leading role on the issue from the IAEA to the 15-member Security Council, said U.S. and European officials who declined to be identified because of the delicacy of the negotiations.

In a related development, the House International Relations Committee voted 37-3 on Wednesday to approve legislation that would tighten U.S. sanctions on Iran, including ending American aid for any country that invested in the Iranian petroleum industry.

The White House opposes the measure, fearing that it would hurt efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution.


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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