Europe moves closer to sanctions on Iran

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The White House dismissed reports that it was preparing military action, including a possible tactical nuclear strike, to destroy suspected Iranian atomic weapon sites. Mr Bush said force was not necessarily required to stop Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and said reports of plans for a military attack was "wild speculation".

In Luxembourg, the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said that "any military action is definitely out of the question for us," but added that Europe should ready itself for punitive action against Tehran.

Meanwhile, senior British defence sources warned that a military strikewould lead almost certainly to retribution against British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tehran has immense influence among Shia militias in the British-occupied south of the country and is widely believed to be directing some of its campaigns. There are also reports of Iranian infiltration into southern Afghanistan, where Britain is in the process of deploying almost 6,000 troops.

There is widespread opposition in the British military to military engagement with Iran. Admiral Sir Alan West said before retiring as the head of the Royal Navy any attack could have "horrendous consequences" and "must be avoided".

EU foreign ministers have been given a discussion paper drawn up by Mr Solana with options including the withdrawal of export credits and the imposition of visa bans on nuclear scientists and researchers.

Ben Bot, Foreign Minister of the Netherlands, said the EU would examine ways to "boost ties" with non-governmental groups, and with the general population in Iran. Asked whether military action against Iran was a possibility, the Slovenian foreign minister, Dimitrij Rupel, said: "Absolutely not".

On 29 March, the UN demanded that Iran suspend enrichment, asking the UN atomic energy agency to report in 30 days on whether Tehran had complied. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said "the issue of sanctions will be considered if necessary by the UN Security Council but we hope we don't get there." But any move to agree European measures against Tehran such as the withdrawal of export credits is far from certain to succeed, even if Iran remained defiant, since many European countries maintained big stakes in Iran's oil and steel sector.

Iran's leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country should not be frightened by reported threats of military action. Tehran insists its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes.

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