By Richard Waddington and Robert Evans
GENEVA - The World Trade Organization (WTO) agreed Monday to begin accession talks with Iraq and Afghanistan, but the United States again blocked any such negotiations with Iran, diplomats said.
The go-ahead for Iraq and Afghanistan came with no dissenting voice among the trade body's 148 member states, but Washington said it was still studying Iran's request -- the same answer it has given for the past three years.
"They have approved Iraq and Afghanistan, but, as it has always been, there was no consensus on Iran," said one diplomat about the deliberations of the WTO's executive General Council, where all decisions must be unanimous. But while the door to the WTO is open for Kabul and Baghdad, entering the Geneva-based organization can be a lengthy process, with Russia and Saudi Arabia still in talks after a decade.
The decision puts the U.S.-installed administration in Baghdad on a level with more than two dozen other nations who want to join or are in the process of doing so.
But actual negotiations with Iraq, which has the world's second largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia, are unlikely to start before elections there, which are due to be held in late January -- violence permitting.
"The new Iraq looks with great optimism at achieving political stability, economic prosperity and social development," Iraqi Trade Minister Mohammed al-Jibouri told the closed-door council meeting.
"Our re-integration into the world trading system is an essential element to fulfill those aims," he added.
Being in the WTO guarantees that a country's goods receive equal treatment in the markets of other member states. Many new members -- China being a recent example -- have reaped huge economic benefit from belonging to the club.
The decisions on Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran were no surprise. Many nations, including developed ones, strongly support Iran's case, but they had indicated that they would not demand that all three be approved together.
Washington has extensive sanctions in force against Iran, which it accuses of wanting to develop a nuclear weapons program and of supporting terrorist groups.
Iran's accession has been on the council's agenda since early 2001, always with the same result.
"We told them that this Iranian situation has been going on long enough, and that these decisions should be made on merit, and not political grounds," said one European Union diplomat, citing a statement to the session by EU envoy Carlo Trojan.
Some 15 or 16 other developed countries had backed the EU line, he added, while Middle Eastern states have long been pressing for the trade body to open its doors to Tehran.
Afghanistan's envoy to the United Nations in Geneva, Assad Omar, said that his country's accession would contribute "to regional prosperity and global security."
The mountainous nation of some 26 million people produces fruit, wheat, minerals and wool. But its principal crop is opium poppies, which provide the raw material for nearly 90 percent of the world's heroin and morphine.
According to international estimates, the drugs' trade makes up some 60 percent of the Afghan economy, although the new government of President Hamid Karzai has promised a crackdown.