Britain steps up pressure on Iran over nuclear arms

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The Independent Online

The Government has warned Iran that it faces a deadline to prove it is not developing nuclear weapons, in the latest escalation in Britain's con- frontation with Tehran.

The Government has warned Iran that it faces a deadline to prove it is not developing nuclear weapons, in the latest escalation in Britain's con- frontation with Tehran.

Following the release of eight British servicemen taken into custody on the Shatt al Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran, Britain has said they were taken into Iranian territorial waters by force, and is demanding the return of their boats and equipment. Now ministers are saying it is essential for Iran to come into line "within the next few months" on its nuclear programme, signalling a tougher approach to the regime in Tehran.

Washington opposes any concessions to Iran's theocratic government, describing it as a member of the "axis of evil". Britain and its European partners have argued for dialogue, believing that democratic forces within Iran allied to President Mohammad Khatami should be supported in their struggle with the dominant conservatives.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, remains committed in public to the policy of engagement. In private, however, there is growing frustration at the failure of a more conciliatory approach to produce results. Apart from the diplomatic fallout from the Shatt al Arab incident, Iran is restarting production of equipment to enrich uranium, heightening suspicions that it is well on the way to producing nuclear weapons.

The treatment of the British servicemen, seized on the Shatt al Arab waterway that divides Iraq and Iran, was typical of the confused picture often given by Tehran. While Iranian diplomats were assuring Britain that the matter would be dealt with quickly and quietly, the men were paraded blindfolded on television and hardliners called for them to be put on trial. Although a showdown was avoided on this issue, the country's conservatives, strengthened by recent elections, are driving Iran's defiance of international nuclear safeguards.

A Foreign Office insider said that a report from inspectors to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) next month could provide the trigger for a formal deadline to be set at the body's meeting in September. The IAEA director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, said in June: "It is essential to the integrity of the inspection processes that we are able to bring these issues to a close within the next few months and provide the international community with the assurances it urgently seeks regarding Iran's nuclear activities."

Tehran has rejected Britain's claim that the six Marines and two sailors were seized on the Iraqi side of the Shatt al Arab and forced to cross to the Iranian shore. It says the men were in Iranian territorial waters. Britain is pressing for the return of their three patrol boats and GPS equipment which, it says, could prove that the servicemen were in effect kidnapped from Iraqi territory.

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