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France urges EU to take lead on Iran sanctions

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - France’s foreign minister called on the European Union to take the lead in widening financial sanctions on Iran, saying the world could not afford to wait for U.N. action to rein in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Bernard Kouchner last month sparked controversy by saying the world should prepare for a war with Iran. The Islamic republic summoned France’s charge d’affaires in Tehran on Wednesday to protest about his “extreme” remarks.

Six major powers last week delayed a U.N. vote on tougher sanctions on Iran until late November at the earliest. Russia, which holds a veto in the U.N. Security Council, backed the case for more negotiations with Tehran.

In a letter to fellow EU ministers, Kouchner appealed to the 27-member bloc to start exploring new sanctions now.

“These new measures, from its most important commercial partner, should have the aim of increasing the pressure on Iran, in particular in the financial and economic area,” he said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters.

“Initially, we could add new entities, in particular in the banking sector, and new individuals to the existing European lists of asset freezes and visa bans.”

Kouchner urged EU foreign ministers to debate the next steps at an October 15 meeting in Luxembourg.

“Time is against us, because each day Iran gets closer to mastering enrichment technology, in other words to having a de facto military nuclear capacity,” he said.

While France can count on support from Britain, Prime Minister Romano Prodi signaled Italy would resist any attempt to formulate EU sanctions outside the United Nations.

Western powers suspect Iran is secretly trying to make atom bombs. They secured U.N. resolutions demanding that Iran suspend sensitive activities such as uranium enrichment, submit to wider inspections beyond declared nuclear facilities and resolve outstanding questions about the nature of its program.

Tehran, the world’s No. 4 crude oil producer, insists its nuclear program is purely for electricity generation.

“EXTREME REMARKS”

Kouchner said the EU should continue diplomacy to encourage Tehran to suspend enrichment and the priority remained getting a U.N. Security Council resolution toughening sanctions.

“But as I was able to ascertain at the meeting that took place in New York on September 28 ... that negotiation will take some more time yet because of the positions of some of our partners,” he said.

The United States and France have been in the forefront of calls for a third round of sanctions, with possibilities including more financial and investment freezes, travel and visa bans, an arms embargo and restrictions on oil trading.

In a compromise last week, top U.N. powers asked EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana to hold more talks with Iran’s national security chief, Ali Larijani, and said they would await a report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog due mid-November on whether Tehran is carrying out a plan to clarify its program.

Solana said in Brussels he hoped to meet Larijani as soon as possible “and then to have a couple of other meetings, as many as are necessary” before reporting to the Security Council.

“We need to get our message across to Tehran that we can’t wait forever,” he told the European Parliament. “There is a risk of more sanctions.”

Britain backs the push for tougher sanctions but diplomats said Germany continued to harbor doubts. Italy, a major commercial partner of Tehran, is also resistant.

“The doctrine of Italy is that there is one place where sanctions are decided, that place is called the United Nations. We stand by that doctrine,” Prodi told reporters in Rome.

Existing Western sanctions on Tehran are beginning to take effect as foreign banks close down business with Iranian customers and trade slows.

Iran’s official IRNA news agency referred to Kouchner’s war comment and said he had accused Iran of trying to obtain a nuclear bomb in some “unrealistic and irresponsible remarks”.

Kouchner said his comments were taken out of context. On Tuesday he said the situation was dangerous and a nuclear-armed Iran would make the Middle East situation even more complicated.

Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi in Rome, Paul Taylor in Brussels and the Tehran bureau

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