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Questions about Iran dominate G8 discussions

June 27, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Trieste, Italy

Published on FT on June 27 2009

Iran’s nuclear programme and its post-election crisis dominated talks this weekend among Group of Eight foreign ministers meeting in Italy, with a sense that time was running out for the international community to respond, diplomats said.

The ministerial discussions, preparing a wide range of global issues for next month’s G8 summit, also revealed how little they understood of what was happening inside Iran and within the regime, participants told the Financial Times.

Ministers discussed what they saw as “fissures” within the Iranian leadership, namely between Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of the Experts Assembly who has backed the opposition in disputing the results of the June 12 presidential election.

David Miliband, UK foreign secretary, conveyed a strong sense of urgency in the talks in Trieste, the diplomats said. Although Israel was not directly mentioned, the diplomats said there was an unspoken understanding of a danger that Israel might take military action against Iran’s nuclear sites if the international community did not make progress on the diplomatic front.

The final G8 statement expressed deep concern over the proliferation risks of  Iran’s ongoing nuclear programme and called on Iran to “seize this opportunity to give diplomacy a chance to find a negotiated solution to the nuclear issue”.

Diplomats said the coded language conveyed a message to Iran that non-diplomatic means – including possible military action – remained a risk it should consider.

G8 ministers said they would take “stock of the situation” on the margins of the UN general assembly in New York in September. Diplomats said this was not so much an ultimatum, however, as more a signal that the G8 needed more time to work out what to do next.

There was no discussion of drawing up further economic and financial sanctions against Iran, diplomats said.

This contrasted with the strong language adopted towards North Korea. The ministers said they “condemn in the strongest terms” North Korea’s second nuclear test conducted on May 25 and its ballistic missile test on April 5. The ministers “demanded” that North Korea “not conduct further destabilising actions”.

Japan had pushed for strong condemnation of North Korea, concerned about its plans to carry out another long-range missile test, and was happy with the G8 outcome.

Kazuo Kodama, spokesman for the Japanese foreign ministry, said the Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues were closely linked.

“North Korea is watching very carefully to see how the G8 responds to the nuclear programme in Iran and vice versa,” Mr Kodama told the Financial Times. “We must be consistent,” he said. “But how to mix dialogue and pressure is always a problem.”

Iran has defied UN resolutions demanding that it halt its uranium enrichment programme, insisting it has a right to produce nuclear fuel for non-military purposes.

Javier Solana, EU foreign policy chief who has led on-off nuclear negotiations with Iran, has a mandate to try to re-engage the Iranians, although it is not clear to whom he might talk.

Mr Solana was prepared “to put more on the table”, diplomats said, without giving details. But they did not expect Iran to re-enter talks in the near future.

Iran turned down an invitation to send its foreign minister to attend a separate conference on Afghanistan and Pakistan that also included the G8 foreign ministers in Trieste.

Western foreign ministers and Japan were relieved that Russia signed up to the final statement which deplored (but did not “condemn”) the post-electoral violence in Iran and expressed “solidarity with those who have suffered repression while peacefully demonstrating”.

Diplomats suggested the G8, despite its suspicion of serious manipulation of Iran’s election results, would have to accept the “victory” of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the hardline incumbent. Mr Kodama said there was “no choice” but to negotiate with an envoy appointed by the government.

Russia, with its close economic and military ties to Iran, was quick to congratulate Mr Ahmadi-Nejad on his re-election when he visited Russia after the vote.

The G8 comprises Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and US.

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