U.N. Council ready to tighten sanctions on Iran

UNITED NATIONS Sat Mar 24, 2007 11:57am EDT

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council was set on Saturday to tighten sanctions against Iran but without the presence of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had wanted to defend his country's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment.

The package of sanctions, aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear program, targets the country's arms exports, its state-owned Bank Sepah and the elite Revolutionary Guards.

Late on Friday, Ahmadinejad canceled his appearance before the council because visas for his flight crew arrived too late for his private plane to arrive in New York before the vote, his U.N. ambassador Javad Zarif said. Washington disputes this.

Instead, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who took a commercial flight, is to address the council's suspicions that Iran is developing nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian atomic energy program.

The meeting begins at 3 p.m. (1900 GMT) and the vote is expected to be unanimous in the 15-nation body. The sanctions would be suspended if Iran halted enrichment.

"It is suspension for suspension," acting U.S. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff said. "It is not a high bar for Iran to meet."

Iran's foreign minister is expected to make proposals to the council that include a previous suggestion Europeans invest in its nuclear industry through a consortium under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog.

European negotiators had rejected the idea because Iran would control potentially dangerous nuclear fuel production.

In an interview with France TV 24, Ahmadinejad said: "Maybe they thought that with the propaganda we would back down. But we have not backed down and we will not back down."

INTENSE NEGOTIATIONS

Agreement came on Friday among major powers who drafted the text -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.

To get the support of South Africa, Indonesia and Qatar, they added the importance of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction and highlighted the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Negotiations were intense in an effort to get a unanimous vote. Wolff spoke to Indonesia for hours on Friday on the wording for a nuclear-free zone, presumably because it includes Israel with its suspected nuclear weapons.

The new measures are a follow-up to a resolution adopted on December 23 banning trade in sensitive nuclear materials and ballistic missiles, as well as freezing assets of individuals and institutions associated with atomic programs.

Saturday's resolution is expected to affect Iran's economy but does not touch on its oil industry, the world's fourth largest.

It would impose an embargo on all conventional weapons Iran can sell and freeze the assets abroad of Bank Sepah, as the United States has already done, isolating it from international financing.

The text does not order but calls on nations and international financial institutions to restrict new grants, credits and loans to Iran, which the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund are unlikely to issue.

The resolution also calls for a voluntary travel embargo on Iranian officials and Revolutionary Guard commanders listed in the text and urges restrictions on the import of heavy weapons to Iran.

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