Iran Nuclear NewsIran nuclear issue looms over NATO meeting

Iran nuclear issue looms over NATO meeting

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AP: Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West is expected to dominate talks Thursday between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her counterparts from NATO and European Union nations on the eve of a U.N. deadline for Tehran to halt uranium enrichment. Associated Press

By PAUL AMES

Associated Press Writer

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) – Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West is expected to dominate talks Thursday between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her counterparts from NATO and European Union nations on the eve of a U.N. deadline for Tehran to halt uranium enrichment.

The Iran question is not on NATO’s official agenda and the alliance’s spokesman, James Appathurai, stressed “NATO does not have a formal role to play” in the debate. However, the issue will be discussed at an informal dinner bringing together NATO and EU nations on the sidelines of the regular spring gathering of NATO foreign ministers.

Iran has refused to comply with U.N. Security Council demands that it suspend uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for nuclear reactors or material for warheads.

The United States, France and Britain say if Iran does not meet the April 28 deadline, they will seek to make the demand compulsory – despite opposition from Russia and China, the other two veto-wielding council members. The three Western nations have also warned that noncompliance could lead to sanctions, but other allies are wary.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is due to join the NATO talks Friday, ahead of the scheduled presentation to the Security Council by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, on Iran’s compliance with its demands.

The opening session of the NATO meeting Thursday will focus on bids by Ukraine, Georgia, Croatia and Macedonia to join the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on Tuesday said NATO leaders would “send a signal” on the countries’ membership aspirations at a summit in November, but a final decision was unlikely before 2008.

Pro-Western parties in Ukraine and Georgia are hoping NATO will open “membership action plans” with them this year, but further expansion of the Western alliance in the former Soviet empire would face Russian opposition.

“The alliance is moving forward in support of Ukraine’s membership aspirations,” Appathurai told reporters before the meeting, but he declined to predict any timeline for membership talks.

Thursday’s meeting is also expected to discuss proposals for NATO to develop closer ties with other democracies including Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea to coordinate political positions and peacekeeping operations.

Appathurai stressed the outreach to the Pacific nations did not mean that NATO aspires “to be a global policeman or a global alliance, but said new partnerships were needed to deal with global threats.

On Friday, Rice is expected to push NATO allies for more robust support for African peacekeepers struggling to end political and ethnic strife in Sudan’s Darfur region. Ministers will also discuss the expanding NATO mission in Afghanistan which is moving into the country’s volatile southern region in the face of mounting attacks blamed on remnants of the ousted Taliban regime.

Appathurai said the allies were prepared for mounting casualties in Afghanistan and insisted “the alliance is completely united in its determination to take this mission forward.”

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