PARIS/BERLIN (Reuters) - France and Germany signalled on Friday the European Union could punish Iran for pressing ahead with its nuclear programme before the world’s top powers agree on further sanctions at the United Nations.
France urged other EU states this week to start exploring further sanctions against Iran now, at the same time as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany negotiate a third round of U.N. measures against Tehran.
Some European countries, such as Italy, have signalled their reluctance to back EU measures outside the U.N. framework.
Germany appeared to give cautious backing to that strategy with comments suggested a hardening of Berlin’s position. Until now, it has insisted the debate in the Security Council run its course before action outside it is considered.
“In the event a Security Council decision cannot be reached and Iran is not showing a readiness to cooperate, the EU needs to think in a timely way about how to react,” a German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told a news conference.
Major powers have agreed not to pass the U.N. sanctions until November, to see whether an agreement between Iran and the U.N. nuclear watchdog aimed at clearing up questions about Tehran’s atomic programme yields results, and to await a report by EU negotiator Javier Solana on talks with Iran.
A spokesman for French President Nicolas Sarkozy said European countries could take their own steps to slow trade with Iran before EU sanctions were agreed.
“Discussions (in the EU) are not that easy to try to reach a toughening of the sanctions regime,” Sarkozy’s spokesman David Martinon told a weekly news conference.
Talks at the UN and within the EU should continue, he said.
“At the same time that does not preclude the fact that each European country can move forward unilaterally on a national basis by giving a certain number of recommendations to its companies.”
France has toughened its rhetoric against Tehran since Sarkozy took office in May. Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner have warned of the prospect of military action against Iran.
Kouchner has said Paris has asked large French companies such as oil major Total not to bid for tenders in Iran to jack up pressure on Tehran to comply with U.N. demands that it suspend activities linked to uranium enrichment, a process that can make fuel for atomic power plants or bombs.
Iran denies charges it is seeking nuclear weapons and says its atomic technology is geared solely to producing electricity. It has refused to suspend enrichment as the Security Council has repeatedly demanded.
Kouchner sparked controversy last month by saying the world should prepare for the possibility of war with Iran. He has spent a lot of time since explaining that he wants to find a diplomatic solution to avert that prospect.
“France has not hardened its position on Iran. Iran is a great country that we respect and with which we speak constantly and will continue to speak,” Kouchner told a joint news conference with his Turkish counterpart Ali Babacan in Ankara.
“This great country must respect international rules ... France will do all it can in its relations with this great country to ensure that the crisis is resolved.”
President George W. Bush told Al Arabiya TV that the United States would work with the EU, the UN, China and Russia to send a clear message to Tehran that they would continue to impose sanctions and make it difficult for the Iranian government to work in the world until it changed its thinking.
In the interview Bush said he would exhaust all diplomatic channels on the Iranian issue.
Additional reporting by Noah Barkin in Berlin and Gareth Jones in Ankara