February 20, 2005 9:56 pm

US urged to join EU's nuclear talks with Iran

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, has called on the US to join Britain, France and Germany in their diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

In an interview published on Sunday in Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, Mr ElBaradei said that the European initiative could only succeed if "the United States joins in and throws its weight behind it".

He said that without US involvement, the so-called "EU-three" could not offer Iran enough economic and security guarantees to persuade it to permanently stop enriching uranium and renounce its nuclear ambitions. "Progress is difficult to conceive without Washington," said the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. "We need a common front."

Mr ElBaradei said that if Iran was determined to have nuclear weapons - as the US believes it is - they could be available within two or three years. But he voiced his alarm over the possibility of a military attack by the US on Iran, saying it would only make the country more determined to acquire a nuclear deterrent.

"After such an attack the Iranians would certainly set themselves in earnest to making a bomb in secret."

European diplomats have warned that a deal with Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions looks increasingly remote. An official close to the negotiations said on Sunday: "There is unlikely to be an agreement for months."

As the US conducts a review of its policy on Iran, future talks between the Islamic republic and the EU-three are expected to focus on how an agreement to suspend enrichment of uranium can be made permanent.

As George W. Bush, US president, prepares for his first meeting since re-election with EU leaders in Brussels on Tuesday, officials on both sides of the Atlantic said Iran would be high on the agenda. The talks follow tension between Washington and Tehran that has unsettled financial and energy markets.

Mr Bush and European leaders agree that Iran should not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. But differences over strategy remain and these are likely to surface if the US pushes for Iran to be referred to the UN Security Council. Washington has refused to rule out military action against Iran and Mr Bush wants the Europeans to stress the penalties it could face.

To encourage Tehran to adhere to its suspension of uranium enrichment, some incentives will be offered. Modest offers of humanitarian aid from Europe are likely to form part of the negotiations, along with help ensuring that food products meet standards for export to western markets.

Iranian officials have privately made clear to European negotiators they are determined to develop a nuclear programme for civil purposes and complain that Iran has not benefited from its earlier commitment to suspend uranium enrichment. The issue could flare in the summer if Iran carries out a threat to restart the process.

Additional reporting by Bertrand Benoit in Berlin

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