US diplomats to visit region to urge more sanctions against Iran

The administration of Barack Obama, the US president, opposes any military strike against Iran and is instead backing harsher sanctions.

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TEL AVIV // Two senior US officials are expected to arrive in Israel and the UAE next week as part of a visit to the Middle East to garner support for a new round of sanctions against Iran.

The upcoming meetings, reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz yesterday, come on the heels of a UN watchdog report this week stating that Iran has been working to design nuclear bombs.

The report of the Middle East tour also follows much speculation in recent weeks in the Israeli press that the Israeli government intends to attack Iran's nuclear facilities to curb its archenemy's nuclear ambitions. The administration of Barack Obama, the US president, has repeatedly indicated it would oppose any such strike and is instead backing harsher sanctions against Iran.

On Monday and Tuesday of next week, David Cohen, US undersecretary of the treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence - who is responsible for spearheading the US sanctions against Iran - and Thomas Nides, deputy secretary of state, will arrive in Israel, Haaretz said.

The two are due to meet Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier, Ehud Barak, the defence minister, and senior figures in the country's security establishment. Mr Cohen, who just completed a round of talks on Iran with leaders in Rome, Paris, London and Berlin, is then scheduled to travel to the UAE, which is on the itinerary because Dubai serves as a conduit for trade from Iran. Iran's non-oil exports, such as pistachios and hand-woven carpets, are valued at some $25 billion (Dh91.8bn) per year.

Prominent among the sanctions being discussed is a blacklisting of Iran's central bank, which the US and its allies believe would deal a blow to the country's banking system and currency's stability. The Obama administration, which also hopes to draw the backing of countries including Japan, Canada and Australia for the measure, is also pushing for more aggressive sanctions against Iran's shipping and airline industries.

The US may also be hoping to persuade Israel to hold off any plans for an attack on Iran, an option which some Israeli officials including Mr Barak last week suggested may be on the table. The government of Mr Netanyahu views Iran's nuclear plans as the largest threat to Israel's existence and has led an aggressive diplomatic campaign to persuade western allies to take action against it.

Late on Wednesday, Mr Netanyahu's office made its first official response to a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which also said Iran may still be conducting secret research into nuclear armament. "The IAEA report corroborates the position of the international community, and of Israel, that Iran is developing nuclear weapons." The statement added that the international community "must bring about the cessation of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons".

Israel has conducted an intensive lobbying campaign to push for action against Iran. Israel has also conducted a ballistic missile test and air force and civil defence drills that some analysts said was aimed at showing the country was preparing for an attack. Mr Netanyahu last week also said Tehran's nuclear programme posed a "direct and heavy" threat.

"Israel, like a lot of the world, is sceptical that sanctions can work," wrote Yaakov Katz, a commentator for the Jerusalem Post newspaper. "What they can do, though, is succeed in stalling the Iranian regime's nuclear progress, similar to the way the covert action taken against Iran has delayed the programme." Mr Katz said that sanctions taken against the Iranian central bank could make it more difficult for Iran to bankroll the nuclear programme and buy the parts it needs to build advanced centrifuges. Similarly, sanctions against the energy sector could cut off a key source of income for Iran, pressuring it to curb its nuclear ambitions.

A report in the British newspaper Daily Mail yesterday said that top British officials believe Israel will carry out an attack against Iran within two months in a bid to damage or destroy the nuclear facilities with American logistical support.

The US, Israel and their European allies claim Iran is attempting to construct bombs under the cover of a civilian nuclear programme. Iran, however, denies this, saying it requires nuclear technology to improve its electricity supply for its population.

Yesterday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned the US and Israel against launching any military attack against the country's nuclear facilities, saying it would be met with "iron fists," news agencies cited Iranian state television as reporting. "Our enemies, particularly the Zionist regime, America and its allies, should know that any kind of threat and attack or even thinking about any [military] action will be firmly responded to," he was quoted as saying.