Powers must close ‘gaps’ for Iran sanctions deal

World powers said they would have to overcome key differences on Tuesday to agree on a new sanctions resolution against Iran that aims to ratchet up pressure on Tehran to curb sensitive nuclear work.

Ahead of a meeting in Berlin of foreign ministers from the five permanent United Nations Security Council members and Germany, United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said powers still had ”some way to go” in agreeing a third UN sanctions resolution.

The West has been engaged in a diplomatic showdown with Iran over its nuclear programme since 2002 and the Security Council has already imposed two sets of mild sanctions — the first in December 2006 and second in March 2007.

A new resolution could range from financial and investment freezes to travel bans and an arms embargo.

”The political directors have made some progress,” Rice said, referring to envoys who have been trying to hammer out language on a new resolution that is acceptable to all six countries. ”I know there are still some gaps to close.”

The West suspects Iran is secretly pursuing an atomic bomb.

Iran, which says its nuclear programme is for peaceful power generation, has vowed that new sanctions will not stop it from pursuing its ”legitimate and legal right” to nuclear energy.

Washington has spearheaded a months-long drive for more punitive measures and wants a new resolution to impose a ban on business with leading Iranian state banks.

But Russia and China, both commercial partners of Iran, have hardened their opposition to tougher sanctions since a US intelligence report last month said Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003.

Progress

Host Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he hoped ministers from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States, who were due to meet at 4.30pm (3.30pm GMT), would send Iran a signal about their concern over its nuclear ambitions but also warned that success was not guaranteed.

”The fact that Russia and China are both here is a positive sign,” the German Foreign Minister told ARD public television.

”I can’t promise we will come out of this meeting with an agreement on how to proceed in the UN Security Council, that we will agree on the text of a resolution and I can’t tell you what new sanctions will look like.”

One European diplomat, however, said political directors had made good progress in recent days and said there were legitimate chances of an agreement.

A French source also voiced optimism that the ministers would seal a new draft that could be forwarded to the United Nations in the coming days.

The foreign ministers last met to discuss Iran in September in New York and have made little tangible progress since then.

International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed ElBaradei won agreement from Iran this month to answer questions about its past covert nuclear work within four weeks, but Western diplomats say expectations are low that leaders in Tehran will be forthcoming.

China said on Tuesday the nuclear stand-off had reached a ”critical moment”. – Reuters

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