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Senators mull Iran nuclear threat, diplomatic efforts

US Senator: Britain not doing enough on Iran
On the eve of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's speech to a joint session of the US Congress, a key senator said Tuesday that London needed to "be more helpful" in confronting Iran. "Great Britain could be more helpful than it has been in support of US policies that would prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons," Senator Jon Kyl, the Senate's number two Republican, told AFP. "I appreciate that this economic crisis is very much on the minds of people both in Great Britain and the US, but strategically there are things we need to do to work together and I don't like to see them ignored," he said. Kyl said Britain, a key US partner in putting diplomatic pressure on Tehran over its suspect nuclear program, was not doing enough to help Washington pile economic pressure on the Islamic republic. He urged Brown to consider stepping up efforts to restrict banking relationships with Iran, either by helping to punish banks that do business in Iran or banks that work with banks that do business there. "There's been some cooperation there with Great Britain and some of the other countries. There could be more," he said. "While there is a great strategic relationship between us, I would hope that maybe he would be willing to address what Great Britain could do to assist us," during his visit to Washington, he said.

Six powers ready for direct nuclear talks with Iran
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany said Tuesday in a rare joint statement that they were ready for direct talks with Iran to resolve a long-running nuclear standoff. "We remain firmly committed to a comprehensive diplomatic solution, including through direct dialogue," the so-called P5+1 nations said in a joint statement read to a closed-door meeting of the IAEA board of governors. The countries -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States -- called on "Iran to take this opportunity for engagement with us and thereby maximise opportunities for a negotiated way forward."

US sanctions 11 companies with ties to Iran's Melli Bank
The US Treasury Department on Tuesday slapped sanctions on 11 companies linked to Iran's Bank Melli, which international officials allege supports nuclear and ballistic missile programs in the Islamic Republic. "The international community has recognized the proliferation risks posed by Iran's Bank Melli," said US undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence Stuart Levey. "We will continue to take steps to protect the integrity of the international financial system by exposing the banks, companies, and individuals supporting Iran's nuclear and missile programs," he said in a statement. The 11 targeted companies, eight of which are located in Tehran, are affiliated with Melli Bank. Bank Melli, Iran's largest bank, has been on a US list of companies sanctioned supporting Iran's alleged nuclear aspirations since 2007, and figures on a similar blacklist compiled by Australia and the European Union.
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) March 3, 2009
The US Senate opened debate Tuesday on how to engage Iran diplomatically without encouraging Tehran to blow through more "red lines" on its way to a nuclear weapon.

Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned that the international community already has sent a message of "ambivalence if not impotence" by allowing Iran to reach a point where it is enriching uranium on an industrial scale.

"While Iran was just talking with the IAEA and the Europeans, it definitely sidestepped every red line laid down by the international community. While Iran was just talking to the world, it was moving to the threshold of becoming a nuclear state," he said.

Kerry opened the week-long hearings on US policy options in Iran just days after President Barack Obama promised "principled and sustained" engagement with Iran, a US bete noir for three decades.

Adding to the sense of urgency was a warning Sunday by the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff that Iran now has enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb.

Kerry said the United States must set a timetable for "substantive progress" in any talks with Iran and back it with a credible threat of tougher international sanctions and further restrictions on trade and finance.

"Iran needs to understand these will not be drawn out negotiations," he said. "That's a scenario that gives Tehran a green light to make more progress on enrichment and other nuclear projects, some of them still being carried out in the dark."

Experts testifying before Kerry's committee, however, urged that the new administration take a more positive approach with the Iranians and avoid publicly setting red lines on Iranian behavior that could not be enforced.

Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Affairs, expressed doubt that Iran would simply give up enrichment and suggested that Washington accept a "right to enrich."

"I believe then the negotiations would need to focus on whether Iran is allowed to have some enrichment capability. Or put another way, how the right to enrichment is defined -- what is the scale, what is the degree of transparency, what is the degree of IAEA access," Haas said.

"Sanctions would be directly linked to what it is Iran agreed to in terms of the scale of the program ... and transparency," he said.

But Senator James Risch, a Republican from Idaho, said it was "incredibly naive" to think Israel will stay on the sidelines if Iran closes in on acquiring nuclear weapons.

"This discussion needs to include what will happen when Israel does what I think it will inevitably do to keep Iranians from completing a nuclear weapon," Risch said, pointing to Israel's history of pre-emptively striking nuclear reactors in Iraq and more recently Syria.

Frank Wisner, a former ambassador, agreed that "any Iranian who doesn't take very seriously the Israeli threat to an Iranian nuclear capability is misjudging this nation's most vital interests."

But he said an Israeli military response to Iranian nuclear developments is "going to put us all in a really, really very difficult situation."

Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon likely would be shrouded in ambiguity, which Israel might decide not take chances with, he said. "But it would put us in terrific harm's way."

Other experts concurred that military action offered no solution to Iran's nuclear challenge, with some warning of dire repercussions for the United States and the region.

And they said there was still time for diplomacy despite the warning by Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that Iran has stockpiled enough fissile material to make a nuclear weapon.

Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow as the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told the committee the Iranian stockpile would still have to be further enriched to bomb grade, which would take several weeks.

"And the basic truth bears repeating, that having a stockpile of enriched uranium is not the same as having a bomb," he said.

It would take six months or more to fashion the highly enriched uranium into the pit for a nuclear weapons, he estimated.

Building only one weapon would be "a huge risk," he said, suggesting Iran may hold off on taking that step until it has sufficient material for more weapons.

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IAEA chief urges Iran to 'unblock' nuclear stalemate
Vienna (AFP) March 2, 2009
UN atomic watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei urged Iran on Monday to "unblock" a long-running nuclear standoff and expressed hope that a possible change in US policy towards Tehran may help break the deadlock.

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