(photo credit: AP)
In talks with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Saturday, Iran offered to help support the cease-fire in Lebanon and insisted that diplomacy was the only way to resolve its nuclear dispute with the West.
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Annan's visit to Teheran came two days after Iran failed to meet a UN deadline for suspending its enrichment of uranium, paving the way to possible sanctions against the Islamic republic, which Western nations fear is seeking to develop atomic weapons.
But Europe is launching a last-ditch attempt at negotiations with Iran, and Annan said in a newspaper interview before arriving that he hoped for a diplomatic solution that would avoid sanctions and "another conflict in a region already subjected to great stress at this moment."
Israel had no formal response to the European Union foreign ministers' agreement Saturday to give Iran two more weeks to try to clarify Teheran's position regarding the UN deadline to stop uranium enrichment.
One diplomatic official said that Israel, which for months and even years has avoided taking the public lead on this issue to prevent a nuclear Iran from being perceived as only Israel's problem, did not want to be seen as taking the lead in pushing for sanctions.
Nevertheless, the feeling in Jerusalem is that the Iranians are just continuing what they have been doing for months - playing for time - and that it is essential that the international community finally take real steps to stop Teheran's nuclear ambitions.
Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog is scheduled to travel to Finland Sunday to take part in an event organized by the local Jewish community in Helsinki, and will have talks with the top Finnish leadership. Finland currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, and Herzog is expected to discuss the Iranian issue.
Government officials have said recently that Israel is quietly sending the message to capitals abroad that the time had come to take significant diplomatic action against Iran.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana will hold talks early next week with Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani.
After an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Finland, the bloc said there was no deadline for the talks to produce results but warned it would not give Iran much time to resolve the standoff.
"We need some sessions - one or two, not more - to clarify some of the issues," Solana said at a news conference.
The tone from Annan's first meetings in Teheran on Saturday was positive. Larijani said his talks with the UN chief were "constructive" and that "both sides agreed that problems should be solved through negotiations." Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki expressed Iranian backing for the UN cease-fire resolution in Lebanon, which calls for the halting of weapons to Iran's ally Hizbullah - though he did not directly address that issue.
"Iran has supported the Lebanese consensus on the resolution. The UN can improve tranquility on [Lebanon's] border by participation of players there," he said, according to the state Islamic Republic News Agency.
Still, Annan likely faces an uphill battle on both issues. Just ahead of Annan's arrival, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed Saturday his country would forge ahead with its nuclear program despite US pressure, state-run television reported. Annan will meet Ahmadinejad on Sunday.
Ahmadinejad maintained his tough tone on the nuclear issue Saturday, saying in a speech that "hyperbole against Iran's peaceful nuclear activities by Western countries especially the US will continue ... But the resistance and awareness of this nation will defuse all these plots."
"Avaricious powers can't create any obstacles on the way to the progress of our nation," Ahmadinejad told a crowd in the town of Miandoab in northwestern Iran.
In Teheran, Larijani said "Annan's stance for solving the nuclear problems is positive." He did not elaborate and there was no immediate comment from Annan or other UN officials on what was discussed.
A commentary by state radio said that Iran hoped it could persuade the UN Security Council to adopt "new approaches toward Iran's nuclear case." But in a reminder of Iran's hardline stance, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned that Teheran could block access to IAEA inspectors if sanctions are imposed.
"Iran will revise in its cooperation with the IAEA if punitive measures by the UN Security Council are applied against Iran," he said in a phone interview with state-run television.
In his interview with France's Le Monde daily, Annan said, "I do not believe that sanctions are the solution to all problems," when asked about the United States's desire to impose sanctions on Iran.
"There are moments when a bit of patience produces lots of effects. I think that is a quality we must exercise more often," he said in the interview published Saturday.
On the Lebanese front, Annan told Le Monde he wants Iran to work with the international community, using its influence so Hizbullah can be disarmed in accordance with the UN cease-fire Resolution 1701.
Iran and Hizbullah deny that Teheran supplies weapons to the guerrillas. But many in the West, Israel and the Arab world believe Iran provided a large arsenal of rockets, including long-range ones that were used to hit Haifa and other Israeli cities during 34 days of Hizbullah-Israel fighting in August and July.
A day earlier, Annan was in Syria, Hizbullah's other top ally. He said he secured a promise from Syrian President Bashar Assad to increase border patrols and work with Lebanese troops to thwart the arms flow to Hizbullah in neighboring Lebanon.
But the promise was met with immediate skepticism from Israel and some in Lebanon.
UN Resolution 1701, which halted the 34-day Israeli-Hizbullah fighting on August 14, calls on countries not to supply weapons to any parties other than the Lebanese government.
Italian soldiers moved into Lebanon on Saturday, part of the first large contingent of international troops dispatched to boost the UN force keeping the peace between Israel and Hizbullah guerrillas to a 15,000-strong force.