Thu, Feb 01, 2007 - Page 7 News List

EU worried US could attack Iran

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Senior European policymakers are increasingly worried that the US administration will resort to air strikes against Iran to try to destroy its nuclear program.

As trans-atlantic friction over how to deal with the Iranian impasse intensifies, there are fears in European capitals that the nuclear crisis could come to a head this year because of US frustration with Russian stalling tactics at the UN security council.

As the US continues its biggest naval build-up in the Gulf since the start of the Iraq war four years ago, a transatlantic rift is opening up on several important aspects of the Iran dispute.

The administration of US President George W. Bush will shortly publish a dossier of charges of alleged Iranian subversion in Iraq.

"Iran has steadily ramped up its activity in Iraq in the last three to four months. This applies to the scope and pace of their operations. You could call these brazen activities," a senior US official said in London yesterday.

Although the Iranians were primarily in Shiite areas, they were not confined to them, the US source said, implying that they had formed links with Sunni insurgents and were helping them with bombs aimed at Iraqi and US forces.

Senior members of the US Congress have raised concerns that the US will attack Iran in retaliation for its alleged activities in Iraq.

The official said there were no plans for "cross-border operations" from Iraq to Iran.

But he said: "We don't want a progressively more confident and bolder Iran ... The perception that Iran is ascendant in the region and that there are no limits to what Iran can do -- that's what is destabilizing."

The US and the EU have sought to maintain a common front on the nuclear issue for the past 30 months, with the European troika of Britain, France and Germany running failed negotiations with the Iranians and the US tacitly supporting them.

But diplomats in Brussels and those dealing with the dispute in Vienna say a fissure has opened up between the US and western Europe on three crucial aspects: the military option; how and how quickly to hit Iran with economic sanctions already decreed by the UN security council; and how to deal with Russian opposition to action against Iran through the security council.

"There's anxiety everywhere you turn," a diplomat familiar with the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna said.

A US navy battle group of seven vessels was steaming towards the Gulf yesterday from the Red Sea, part of a deployment of 50 US ships, including two aircraft carriers, expected in the area within weeks.

"No path is envisaged by the EU other than the UN path," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said yesterday.

"The priority for all of us is that Iran complies with UN security council resolutions," he said.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei called at the weekend for a "timeout" in the worsening confrontation in an attempt to enable both sides to save face and climb down.

But the US rejected the proposal and European officials involved in the dispute also believe the Iranians cannot be trusted to stick to a deal.

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