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Annan warns against Iran nuclear 'escalation'

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has urged Iran to help set the stage for a new round of talks by March.

india Updated: Feb 14, 2006 19:30 IST

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has urged Iran to help set the stage for a new round of talks on its nuclear programme by March and warned against an escalation of Tehran's tense dispute with the West.

Annan's appeal came after he met US President George W Bush in Washington for talks that also broached peacekeeping in Sudan's troubled Darfur region, UN reform, and pressure on Hamas to renounce violence against Israel.

But even as they met, diplomatssaid that Iran had restarted uranium enrichment work by putting its feedstock gas into centrifuges, defying the West with a programme that could make nuclear reactor fuel or atom bomb material.

While Bush was silent about the dispute with Iran, Annan volunteered: "We need to be able to work to resolve it, and I hope there will be no steps taken to escalate the situation."

Annan said he hoped Tehran would take steps to show that diplomacy is "not dead" before the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), meets in Vienna next month to decide whether to recommend UN Security Council action.

Washington accuses Tehran of using a civilian nuclear programme as cover for trying to develop atomic weapons. Iran denies the charge.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted his country was not worried about possible sanctions and Tehran said talks in Moscow aimed at finding an end to the standoff would not go ahead as planned later this week.

A new opinion poll made public on Tuesday showed Americans were deeply worried about the possibility that Iran will develop nuclear weapons and use them against the United States.

But seven out of 10 surveyed in the USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll said they were also concerned that the United States would move prematurely to use force.

Uranium enrichment is seen as a red line by the United States and the European Union in the dispute over Iran's nuclear programme, as it is crucial to making atomic weapons.

Putting uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas into centrifuges, which distil out enriched uranium, is a major escalation by Iran, and comes amid threats by the Islamic republic to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Bush and Annan also discussed options for UN peacekeeping in Darfur, though neither leader mentioned a US military contribution to such an effort amid warnings from Washington that such talk is "premature."

"Of course this is an issue where all governments have to play their role," said Annan, who vowed last week to press Bush on helping to build such a force to replace a beleaguered African Union deployment.

"I'm very happy that we have agreed to work together on the Darfur issue, working with other governments from Europe, from Asia, and other regions, to ensure that we do have an effective security presence on the ground," he added.

Bush mentioned his meeting last week with Rebecca Garang, the widow of Sudanese rebel leader John Garang, and efforts to implement a January peace deal that ended more than two decades of north-south civil war, which left some two million people dead and displaced twice as many from their homes.

"I appreciate the secretary's leadership on that issue," the president said.

Annan also urged the militant Palestinian group Hamas to abandon violence against Israel and recognise that state's right to exist in the wake of the Islamists' landslide victory in Palestinian legislative elections.

"I think there is an opportunity here for Hamas to transform itself into a political party and work with the international community and the Israeli government," Annan said.

The UN chief pointed to calls by the international "quartet" comprising the United Nations, United States, Russia and Europe for Hamas to recognise Israel's right to exist and to disarm.

On UN reform, Bush vowed to keep pushing for overhauling the UN human rights commission, which Washington says is too-often packed with countries that violate human rights, and Annan said such reform needed to be carried out "as soon as possible."

First Published: Feb 14, 2006 19:30 IST