Cook chides US for its hard line on Iran and Iraq

Click to follow
The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, moved Britain's foreign policy several steps away from the United States yesterday, expressly differentiating Britain from the US in two key policy areas: Iraq and Iran. Mr Cook was making a flying - and heavily chaperoned - visit to Washington to launch Britain's presidency of the European Union. But his remarks were clearly intended also to burnish Britain's credentials among its European partners.

Mr Cook - who arrived a day later than planned and, at the Prime Minister's insistence, sans mistress - was on the first leg of a world tour designed to project Britain's simultaneous presidency of the European Union and chairmanship of the world's elite economic club, the Group of Seven industrialised nations.

Addressing a seminar on European-US relations before formal talks with his US counterpart, Madeleine Albright, Mr Cook stressed Britain's solidarity and agreement with the US on many issues, including defence, Nato expansion and the continued international presence in Bosnia. But he also aligned Britain more closely with its European partners in several areas, implicitly chiding his hosts for their stance.

The most carefully worded, and perhaps least expected, of these departures related to Iraq. While noting that Britain had stood "four square" with the US in its determination "to take whatever action is necessary" to ensure Iraq's compliance with United Nations Security Council decisions, Mr Cook said: "Equally, however, the Security Council must stand by its commitment that the sanctions are in place for specific purposes. There is light at the end of the tunnel for Iraq. Once Saddam complies fully with the Security Council's requirements on weapons of mass destruction, then the council will need to take action on the oil embargo."

The term "light at the end of the tunnel" has been used by France and Iraq to argue that Baghdad should be given clear objectives, and preferably a timetable, for the lifting of the UN embargo. US statements have been ambiguous, with some officials suggesting that the embargo will remain in force so long as Saddam is in power.

On Iran, Mr Cook was more forthright, describing it as "an issue where the US and the EU find it harder to see eye to eye" and lining Britain up firmly with Europe. "Isolating Iran," he said, "is not the right response". He warned that economic isolation would have no serious effect on Iran's attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. He also attacked US legislation that provides for sanctions on companies and third countries that trade with Iran and Libya. "We believe it is wrong in principle and counterproductive in its effect on Iranian politics," he said. "It has an extra-territorial impact on legitimate business which is unacceptable", and could only help Iran's "hawks".

Russians offer replacements if Iraq bans american reconnaissance aircraft

The Russian defence minister, Igor Sergeyev, yesterday offered Russian-made spy aircraft to replace American U-2 reconnaissance aircraft over Iraq if Baghdad banned US observation flights from its airspace.

"Our countries want the problems to be solved peacefully. If Iraq is against the U-2s, we can propose Russian-made planes that have the same performance as US aircraft, and that can be the start of a solution," Mr Sergeyev told a news conference held with the French defence minister, Alain Richard, on the first day of the Russian's three-day visit to France.

Iraq, which has triggered a new crisis in the United Nations Security Council by blocking a weapons inspection team headed by an American, has in the past threatened to shoot down US U-2 aircraft flying over its territory during such confrontations.

Yesterday, the US-led team awaited instructions from United Nations headquarters. Iraq's UN ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon, said that his country would only co-operate if the UN reduced "the dominance of American citizens" on inspection teams. He dismissed Wednesday's Security Council statement deploring Iraq's blocking of the US team. Iraq has accused the UN of trying to find evidence that Baghdad tested chemical and biological agents on prisoners in 1995.

Nils Carlstrom, head of the UN inspection office in Baghdad, said that all the inspection teams were able to go about their business yesterday except for the US-led team. The inspectors were "waiting [for] orders from New York," he said.

UN inspectors must certify that Iraq has eliminated its weapons of mass destruction before the UN sanctions can be lifted.