SALZBURG, Austria,(Reuters) – EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana raised the prospect of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme for the first time on Friday but other EU officials stressed the need for a big-power consensus.
In an interview with the Austrian daily Der Standard, published as EU foreign ministers began a meeting in Salzburg, Solana said he did not rule out sanctions at a later date if Tehran fails to allay fears it plans to build nuclear weapons.
The U.N. Security Council is due to take up Iran’s case after an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors meeting ended on Wednesday without a deal to defuse the diplomatic standoff over Iran’s atomic ambitions.
“I do not rule out sanctions, but it depends on what kind of sanctions they are,” Solana was quoted as saying in his first explicit mention of economic measures against Iran.
“We certainly do not want to hurt the Iranian people,” he added. “It won’t be easy for the Security Council.”
The United States, which already has sweeping unilateral sanctions against Iran in place, has been pressing for tougher international action to isolate the Islamic Republic.
Ambassadors from the five permanent council members — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — meet again on Friday to work out a statement the Western powers hope will be adopted by the 15 Security Council members next week.
The European Union, led by France, Britain and Germany, opened talks with Iran 2-1/2 years ago in the hope of persuading it to scrap uranium enrichment, which can produce fuel for power plants or weapons, in exchange for economic and political incentives.
The talks collapsed in August after Iran ended a suspension of enrichment-related work by resuming uranium processing. A last-gasp meeting between the two sides last Friday failed to produce a breakthrough.
Diplomats say EU foreign ministers have so far not discussed imposing sanctions against Iran, the world’s fourth biggest oil exporter, and it was not certain they would tackle the issue at their informal two-day session in Salzburg.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told a news conference just before the meeting that there was still room for a negotiated solution based on a Russian proposal for Iran to enrich uranium on Russian soil in a joint venture.
Iran has insisted on continuing sensitive nuclear work on its own soil.
Asked whether the EU should consider sanctions, she said: “We have to think very carefully in order to maintain the consensus of groups and in particular of the Permament Five.”
She said the EU should not be impressed by Iranian “sabre-rattling” with threats to cause “harm and pain”.
Russia and China strongly oppose sanctions on Iran, which says it only wants nuclear technology to generate electricity.
“The Security Council will work on a presidential statement which confirms once again the authority of the (IAEA). The discussion must begin now,” Solana was quoted as saying.
“Sanctions of some kind may not be ruled out at a later stage. Let us see what the Security Council will do. We must weigh all the options,” he added.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said on Friday France was looking for a political solution to the nuclear dispute rather than trying to punish Tehran.
“Our goal is political, not at all punitive,” he told RTL radio when asked whether France backed U.S. demands that the Security Council consider sanctions.
Germany, which is the biggest exporter of goods to the Islamic republic, has repeatedly said Tehran might face economic sanctions unless it halts its uranium enrichment programme.
Berlin exported around 4 billion euros’ worth of goods to Iran last year. In 2004, the biggest supplier of goods to Iran after Germany was France, followed by Italy and then China and the United Arab Emirates.