Daily Telegraph: A serious rift has opened between Tony Blair and Jack Straw over whether to retain the threat of military action against Iran if it refuses to halt its nuclear programme.
By Toby Helm in London and Anton La Guardia in Vienna
A serious rift has opened between Tony Blair and Jack Straw over whether to retain the threat of military action against Iran if it refuses to halt its nuclear programme.
A day after Mr Straw declared that the crisis “will not be resolved by military means”, Downing Street distanced itself from the Foreign Secretary.
It lined up behind President George W Bush, who has made clear that “all options are on the table” while wanting a diplomatic solution and insisting there are no plans to use force.
The Foreign Office made no attempt to hide the disagreement last night. “Jack’s view is clear,” said a senior official. “Military action is inconceivable.”
Earlier, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman played down any suggestion of a split but, when asked about the difference between Mr Straw’s views and those of the US President, he emphasised that Mr Blair agreed with Mr Bush.
“On May 12 the Prime Minister at a press conference said that what President Bush has said is perfectly sensible.
“You can’t say you are taking options off the table. But he went on to say, I think very sensibly too, that nobody is talking about invasions of Iran or military action against Iran.”
US and European nations fear that Teheran’s attempts to make its own uranium-enriched fuel is linked to a secret project to create fissile material for atomic bombs. The Iranians say they want nuclear energy for electricity.
With the crisis in Iraq deepening, the prospect of a radical Middle Eastern regime holding such weapons is causing mounting alarm.
The Blair-Straw disagreement reflects a long-running difference of emphasis over Middle East policy and US relations.
Mr Straw is known to have had severe reservations about sending British troops to Iraq without a second UN resolution. He believes, say insiders, that even the threat of action against Teheran is making it more difficult to convince Russia and Third World countries to support a European move to report Iran to the UN Security Council for violating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
Western governments were angered by a defiant weekend speech by the hardline Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
He said his country would not halt uranium enrichment and hinted it might withdraw co-operation with international nuclear inspectors if the West tried to impose its will “through a language of force and threat”.
Last month Iran restarted a factory making uranium hexafluoride, a key step in the enrichment of uranium to make either nuclear fuel or fissile material for bombs.
The move was a challenge to Britain, France and Germany, the so called EU-3 countries who struck a deal with Iran to freeze the most sensitive parts of its nuclear programme.
Last night at a meeting of the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, the three circulated a draft resolution calling for Iran to be reported to the security council.
They face a difficult task in gaining a majority because of opposition from Russia, China and developing countries.
Many fear that any move to the security council would provoke a radical response, with Iran possibly scaling down nuclear inspections or resuming all aspects of uranium enrichment.
This could escalate the crisis, set off an Iraq-style escalation and eventually lead to military action.
The resolution has not yet been tabled formally and is unlikely to be voted on until Thursday or Friday.
But Gregory Schulte, the US ambassador to the IAEA, said: “We think a report to the council is long overdue.”
However the director-general of the IAEA, Mohammed ElBaradei, wants to put off referral to give more time for talks.
Yesterday he accused Iran and the West of engaging in “confrontation and brinkmanship”, telling them to learn from North Korea that negotiation yields better results than confrontation.