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. Cheney: "All options" in play on Iran
SYDNEY, Feb 24 (AFP) Feb 24, 2007
US Vice President Dick Cheney said Saturday that Washington favours a diplomatic approach to Tehran's atomic programme but refused to rule out using force to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

"It would be a serious mistake if a nation like Iran were to become a nuclear power," Cheney warned during a joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister John Howard. "All options are still on the table."

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has issued a report saying that Iran had not halted, and in fact had expanded, its uranium enrichment programme, defying a UN Security Council demand to stop by this week.

The United States, France and Britain have called for tougher UN Security Council sanctions on Tehran, while Germany, China and Russia have taken softer stances. Iran denies US charges that it seeks nuclear weapons.

"We've worked with the European Community and through the United Nations to put in place a set of policies to persuade the Iranians to give up their aspirations," said Cheney. "That's still our preference.

"The next step now is being debated, between our government and the others involved," added Cheney, who had been asked whether he felt any frustration about the pace of diplomatic activity to resolve the tense standoff.

US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns was meeting with top European diplomats in London Saturday to decide "the future course of action we want to pursue with respect to the United Nations sanctions and so forth," he said.

Cheney's comments came at the tail end of a week-long visit to Japan and Australia, two staunch US allies rattled by Washington's strategies in Iraq and North Korea and eager to discuss issues roiling bilateral ties.

The vice president and the prime minister discussed issues including China's rise -- the subject of tough words from Cheney on Friday -- and the fate of Australia's David Hicks, held as a terrorist suspect at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Cheney promised that Hicks, this country's sole detainee at the US-run facility, was "near the head of the queue" for trial and confirmed that he would serve his sentence in his homeland if found guilty.

Hicks, a 31-year-old Muslim convert, was captured in Afghanistan in late 2001, where he was alleged to have been fighting with Taliban government forces against US troops who invaded after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Howard said he had pushed Cheney on trying Hicks "with no further delay."

One day after Cheney warned China that its military build-up and recent satellite-killer test worried the world, Howard declined to embrace that view and highlighted Australia's "realistic" cooperation with Beijing.

"Australia, as you know, has striven over the last decade to build a really close relationship with China," he said. "We have sought to emphasise in our relations with China those practical things that we have in common.

"We have no false illusions about the nature of China's society," said Howard, who branded Beijing's government "authoritarian."

On Iraq, Cheney sidestepped a question on whether Washington had asked London to ease the burden on US troops in Iraq by redeploying, rather than withdrawing, British forces.

At the same time, the vice president praised Australia for sending more troops to Iraq while Britain and Denmark draw down their forces -- but also signalled that there would be no hard feelings if Canberra followed suit.

"I don't see any prospect of damage of the alliance," said Cheney, who met Friday with Australian opposition leader Kevin Rudd, who has called for a withdrawal of Australian combat forces.

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