Political spat delays Iran nuclear talks

Negotiations on an Iran sanctions resolution were postponed unexpectedly early today as Russia exploded at the US for raising the plight of a Belarusian opposition leader in the United Nations Security Council.

Negotiations on an Iran sanctions resolution were postponed unexpectedly early today as Russia exploded at the US for raising the plight of a Belarusian opposition leader in the United Nations Security Council.

Belarus, an authoritarian former communist state with close ties to Russia, was not on the agenda of the UN’s most powerful body.

Russia’s ambassador Vitaly Churkin objected strongly when senior US diplomat William Brencick brought up the 54-day hunger strike of jailed former Belarusian opposition presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin, council diplomats said.

The five veto-wielding council members – the US, Russia, China, Britain and France – along with Germany had been due to meet soon after to discuss Russian amendments to a revised European draft resolution on Iran.

But because of the diplomatic tiff over Belarus, the meeting was put off.

“It wasn’t the best timing by the US,” said Britain’s UN ambassador Sir Emyr Jones Parry.

The Europeans circulated a revised text on Friday in a bid to win backing from Russia and China, and Churkin said after talks on Monday that he was pleased with the direction of the negotiations, even though specific points still needed to be worked out.

A US official said Washington felt it was important to raise the issue of Kozulin in the security council because of US concerns for freedom of political expression and democracy, especially in the heart of Europe.

“We raised this issue and our goal was to highlight the plight of this individual and what it means for the state of democracy in this country,” the official said.

Kozulin, who ended his hunger strike yesterday, has been jailed since March, when he led a protest march following presidential elections in which he was one of three candidates challenging hardline president Alexander Lukashenko.

He had been on hunger strike to protest at his sentencing in June to five and a half years in prison for organising the unsanctioned protest.

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994, quashing dissent and maintaining power through elections which have been dismissed by critics abroad and at home as illegitimate.

The new draft resolution specifies in greater detail exactly what materials and technology would be banned from being supplied to Iran for possible use in its nuclear and missile programs.

The Russians and Chinese had previously complained that proposed sanctions were too broad.

The draft also removes reference to a nuclear facility being built by the Russians at Bushehr, Iran – another demand by Russia. The facility, expected to go on line in late 2007, would be Iran’s first atomic power plant.

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