Iran and North Korea defy nuclear warnings

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The West's dispute with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear capability has taken a dangerous turn following the failure of talks on the Iranian programme and Pyongyang's pledge to conduct its first nuclear test.

The reclusive Communist state drew a strong response from the US, Japan and Europe yesterday when it issued a statement announcing that because of the American "threat of nuclear war and sanctions" it would carry out a nuclear test.

The statement from the North Korean Foreign Ministry said that the test would be conducted "in the future" and "under the condition where safety is firmly guaranteed". Although North Korea claims to have produced nuclear weapons, it has never carried out a nuclear test.

Also yesterday, hopes that Iran could be coaxed into curbing its nuclear programme faded after the European official who had been holding discreet talks with the chief Iranian negotiator informed European ministers and the US that they had failed.

As a result, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - Britain, the US, France, Russia and China - have agreed to discuss economic sanctions against Tehran "in the coming week or so" at the United Nations, a senior British official said.

Russia, which has resisted possible sanctions aimed at forcing the Iranian leadership to agree to a suspension of uranium enrichment before negotiations on a package of incentives, continued to insist yesterday that the issue should be resolved through negotiations.

The British official recognised that "on the details there are differences", but that all the UN big powers agreed on "incremental" coercive measures. As a first step, these are expected to target exports to Iran which could be used for its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, who is currently on a Middle East tour, may discuss Iran in London with other European partners later this week. Speaking in Cairo last night, she said that "the only choice for the international community is to live up to the terms" of the UN resolution that ordered Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment programme or face consequences. "And that is to bring sanctions," she said.

Western experts believe that although Iran and North Korea are not co-ordinating their strategy, they are carefully watching how each other's actions are playing out.

The Lebanon war, in which Iran's proxy militia survived a month-long pounding by the Israeli military, is considered to be a factor in the Iranian leadership's resolve to reject the UN demands to curb its programme, which is not as far advanced as that of North Korea. US military strikes against Iran are now seen by Tehran as unlikely because of Hizbollah's proclaimed "victory" in Lebanon.

Iran says that its nuclear programme is peaceful, but the US and Europe believe that its civilian programme could be a cover for building a weapon.

The long-running dispute with both countries is now entering an unpredictable phase, with uncertainty over how Iran may react to possible UN sanctions.

Tehran may be tempted to carry out its threat of using oil as a weapon, or even pull out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, as North Korea did in 2002.

But although the White House and State Department warned that a "provocative" and "reckless" test would only lead to further isolation for Pyongyang, Washington signalled its preference to resolve the dispute through diplomatic channels. The US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, urged Security Council members to discuss the next steps.

In an early sign of the tough line being taken by the new government headed by Shinzo Abe in Japan, the Foreign Minister, Taro Aso, called the North's nuclear test plans "totally unforgivable," and said Tokyo would react "sternly" if the North conducted a test.

North Korea is being urged to return to six-party talks - involving both Koreas, the US, China, Russia and Japan - which it has boycotted for the past year.

Iran is a year away from mastering the enrichment technology that could lead to production of a bomb, according to British officials.

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