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Allies say Germany is 'wobbly' on pressuring Iran

WASHINGTON — Germany's allies are dismayed that the German government has granted a German firm permission to supply three natural gas plants to Iran at the same time they're trying to pressure Iran into suspending its nuclear program, U.S. and European officials said Tuesday.

"The Germans are very wobbly, and certainly the French, the British and the Americans are quite worried," said a European diplomat, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Their spine needs to be stiffened. The more mixed messages, the more it plays into the Iranians' hands."

There is "significant concern" in the Bush administration over the $156 million natural gas deal, said a U.S. official, who also requested anonymity, citing diplomatic sensitivities.

The comments appeared to be an effort to pressure the German government to reconsider its decision by calling public attention to the deal.

Germany's Federal Export Control Office announced Tuesday that after a yearlong review it's approved a proposal by Steiner-Prematechnik-Gastec to supply Iran with three plants that convert natural gas into a liquid.

News reports quoted a spokesman for the office as saying that the deal doesn't violate the sanctions the U.N. Security Council has imposed on Iran for defying its demands to suspend a uranium enrichment program it hid from international inspections for 18 years.

Although the deal is relatively modest, it comes as Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.S. are discussing a fourth round of U.N. sanctions after Iran failed to meet a weekend deadline to respond to a proposal to suspend further international sanctions in exchange for a freeze on Iran's uranium enrichment work.

The United States and its allies believe that Iran is pursuing uranium enrichment as part of a secret program to develop a nuclear arsenal.

Iran insists that its program is legal and intended to produce low-enriched uranium for power plants.

Tehran sent a letter to the six powers on Tuesday. While it reiterated a willingness to negotiate, the European diplomat said, the letter failed to respond to the so-called "freeze for a freeze" proposal.

"The letter was not very serious at all. You could almost describe it as laughable," said the diplomat. "The letter ends without any concrete proposal or counter-proposal. It is absolutely devoid of content."

The European diplomat quoted an excerpt of the Iranian letter sent Tuesday to European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana as saying, "The Republic of Iran is ready to provide a clear response to your proposal at the same time simultaneously expecting to receive your clear response to our questions as well."

The German and French Embassies in Washington didn't respond to requests for comment about the German natural gas deal, but both governments are backing new European Union sanctions against Iran that are tougher than the current United Nations measures. The EU sanctions could be implemented as early as this week.

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