Chirac calls for threat of Iran sanctions to be lifted

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President Jacques Chirac has broken ranks with the US and Britain by calling for the suspension of UN Security Council action against Iran during negotiations over its nuclear programme.

In a radio interview yesterday before flying to New York for the UN General Assembly, the French President provoked a diplomatic storm by backing Iran's demand that the Security Council should halt its involvement in the nuclear dossier.

The demand is spelt out in Iran's confidential 20-page response to a Western offer of technological and economic co-operation in return for a freeze on nuclear activities which could lead to production of a nuclear weapon. The Independent has obtained a copy of the document.

M. Chirac suggested that the group of six nations involved in talks with Iran - Britain, the US, France, Germany, Russia and China - should "set an agenda, then start negotiations".

"We must, on the one hand, together, Iran and the six countries, meet and set an agenda, then start negotiations. Then, during these negotiations, I suggest that the six renounce referring [Iran to] the UN Security Council and that Iran renounce uranium enrichment during negotiations," M. Chirac said.

The French President is the first European leader to state publicly that a freeze by Iran is not a precondition for opening talks. The concession to Iran seems to be linked to events in Lebanon, where there had been concern that French soldiers may be targeted by Iran's proxy militia, Hizbollah, over France's previously hardline stance in the nuclear negotiations.

Iranian diplomats say that there has been "positive co-operation" between Iran, France and Italy, which has also stationed troops in southern Lebanon and whose Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, announced that he would meet the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in New York this week. Diplomats in Paris suggested that M. Chirac's switch of position might be intended to protect the French troops.

But M. Chirac's abrupt announcement is likely to complicate talks in New York involving the foreign ministers of the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany, by demonstrating that Iran has succeeded in driving a wedge between them.

The six have been unanimous in insisting that negotiations cannot take place until Iran suspends uranium enrichment in line with a UN demand that called for such a freeze before the end of August. Iran says that a suspension cannot be a precondition for the talks.

A Foreign Office spokesman played down suggestions of a rift, saying that "we have always said that action in the Security Council is reversible if the Iranians suspend". But President Chirac's initiative is privately being described as "unhelpful" and it is hoped that his statement is a personal initiative which does not signal a change in the official French position.

With the US publicly pressing for sanctions against Iran, M. Chirac said on the Europe-1 radio channel: "I don't believe in a solution without dialogue. I am not pessimistic. I think that Iran is a great nation, an old culture, an old civilisation, and that we can find solutions through dialogue."

However, he ruled out a meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly session with Mr Ahmadinejad.

In its response to the 6 August offer from the six powers, Iran said: "If negotiation is to be considered as a way for mutual understanding and concord, then it is intrinsically in contradiction with tabling the issue at the Security Council. Therefore cessation of the Security Council involvement ... is self-evident."

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