World powers try to narrow differences on Iran

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NEW YORK, Sep 28 (Reuters) The world's major powers tried to narrow their differences on tougher sanctions against Iran today, seeking to keep up pressure on Tehran to curb its nuclear program.

But Iran's foreign minister defiantly said sanctions would not change what he called Tehran's ''rational'' nuclear policy.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chaired a meeting with her counterparts from Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, plus European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who has been holding talks on their behalf with Iran.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters just before the meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly that they would seek a joint position ''to show the unity of the international community'' and demonstrate their determination to seek a diplomatic solution with Iran.

The United States, France and Britain want the UN Security Council to adopt a third sanctions resolution soon to punish Iran for defying demands that it suspend uranium enrichment, which the West suspects is aimed at making a bomb.

Russia and China, which oppose an early move to tighten economic sanctions, say Tehran should be given more time to cooperate with the UN atomic watchdog to clear up questions about its past nuclear activities.

Speaking at the Asia Society in New York as the major powers were meeting, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said: ''Sanctions as a political tool for exerting pressure is ineffective in making Iran change its basically rational policy choice.'' GERMANY ON FENCE Germany, Iran's biggest European trade partner, has been sitting on the fence, insisting that further sanctions must be within the UN framework and conditional on avoiding the use of military force against the Islamic Republic, diplomats say.

''We can't exclude sanctions in the longer term in the quest for a diplomatic and political solution. It depends on Iran itself,'' Steinmeier said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's defiant statements at the UN General Assembly this week that the nuclear issue is ''closed'' and Tehran will ignore the Security Council appear to have had little effect on the debate.

To try to force the pace of sanctions, Rice held separate back-to-back meetings, first of all six foreign ministers, then with just the three Europeans. There was no immediate word on progress after the first meeting ended.

''The main topic of conversation is two-pronged: one, what are the elements of a resolution and two, the timing,'' State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

''Looking at the comments from (Russian) Foreign Minister (Sergei) Lavrov, you still have agreement on the basic strategy, and that is to use the Security Council to pressure Iran to change their behavior.'' Diplomats said the purpose of holding separate meetings was that if Moscow and Beijing blocked progress on a sanctions resolution, Washington would press the Europeans to take their own measures to restrict trade credits, investment and financial flows with Iran.

Lavrov made clear on Thursday that Moscow is in no hurry for further UN sanctions, saying the priority was to support Iran's negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Many European officials are hesitant about acting outside the UN framework, arguing that the unity of the international community so far has surprised and shaken Iranian leaders, and that any split would be easy for Tehran to exploit.

''I believe that what impresses Iran the most is the unity of the six. Iran's strategy is to split the six but it hasn't succeeded so far,'' Steinmeier said.

European investment in Iran is already falling dramatically -- British Foreign Secretary David Miliband cited a 40 percent fall in the first half of this year.

REUTERS AE RAI2125

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