DON’T USE FORCE AGAINST IRAN – Lavrov warns US and Israel

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday warned against the use of force on Iran, saying there was no proof it was trying to build nuclear weapons. Lavrov said Iran should be engaged in dialogue and encouraged to cooperate with the UN nuclear monitoring agency.

He made the statement when asked to comment on Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz’s statement earlier this month that Israel could attack Iran if it does not halt its nuclear programme.

Mofaz said: ‘If Iran continues its plan to develop nuclear weapons, we will attack it.

‘The window of opportunity has closed.

‘The sanctions are not effective. There will be no choice but to attack Iran to stop its nuclear programme.’

Russian foreign minister Lavrov said: ‘I hope the actual actions would be based on international law.

‘And international law clearly protects Iran’s and anyone else’s territorial integrity.’

He said Russia had asked both the United States and Israel to provide factual information to back their claims that Iran was working to build atomic weapons.

Lavrov cautioned: ‘So far we have seen none, and the same conclusion was made by the International Atomic Energy Agency.’

He added: ‘It’s absolutely not right to speak matter-of-factly that Iran continues building nuclear weapons.’

The Russian diplomat insisted that Iran must be encouraged to continue its cooperation with the UN monitoring agency.

‘As long as the IAEA reports to us progress in its relations with Iran, as long as Iran closes the issues which were of concern to the IAEA and this process continues, we should avoid any steps which could undermine this very important process,’ he said.

‘The key to resolving the Iranian issue is involvement,’ Lavrov said.

‘We must involve Iran, engage Iran in resolving the Iranian nuclear programme, but also engage Iran in constructive, respectful, serious dialogue on Iraq and Afghanistan, on the Middle East in general,’ he stressed.

Meanwhile, US officials say Israel carried out a large military exercise at the beginning of this month in preparation for potential bombing on Tehran’s nuclear facilities.

According to Pentagon officials, the goal is to send a clear message that Israel is ready to act militarily against the Islamic Republic.

Citing unidentified American officials, The New York Times reported on Friday that more than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighters took part in the manoeuvres over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece in the first week of June.

It said the exercise appeared to be an effort to focus on long-range strikes and illustrates the seriousness with which Israel views Iran’s nuclear programme.

A spokesman for the Israeli military only said that the Israeli Air Force ‘regularly trains for various missions in order to confront and meet the challenges posed by the threats facing Israel’, according to the NY Times.

The drill also included IAF rescue helicopters, said the US officials, adding that the helicopters and refuelling tankers flew more than 900 miles, which is approximately the distance between Israel and Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz.

A Pentagon official who the NY Times said was briefed on the exercise, said one goal was to practice flight tactics, aerial refuelling and other details of a possible strike against Iran’s nuclear installations and long-range conventional missiles.

The Pentagon official said a second goal was to send a clear message that Israel was prepared to act militarily if other efforts to stop Iran from producing bomb-grade uranium fail.

‘They wanted us to know, they wanted the Europeans to know, and they wanted the Iranians to know,’ the Pentagon official said, according to the Times.

‘There’s a lot of signalling going on at different levels.’

Several US officials told the newspaper they did not believe Israel had decided to attack Iran or think such a strike was imminent.

The persistent threats to strike Iran prompted the senior cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami to warn Israel on Friday of a ‘strong blow’ if it takes forceful measures.

‘If enemies, especially Israelis and their supporters in the United States, would want to use a language of force, they should rest assured that they will receive a strong blow in the mouth,’ Khatami said.

The Islamic Republic President and Defence Minister Ahmadinezhad warned earlier of a ‘painful response’ if Israel attacks Iran.

• Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Thursday the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas was worth trying, but he did not know how long it could last.

He was speaking during a visit to Paris for meetings with his French counterpart, Herve Morin, and to visit an arms show outside Paris.

‘We look with open eyes at the situation and understand it’s fragile, but we prefer to give it a chance,’ he told reporters in Paris.

Asked if he was optimistic, Barak replied: ‘A pessimist is an optimist with experience.’

In an interview with France’s Le Monde newspaper published on Thursday, Barak was quoted as saying, ‘This cease-fire, we don’t know how long it can hold, two days or two months.

‘Historically, we have been on a collision course with Hamas. But it nevertheless makes sense to seize this chance. If (the ceasefire) breaks, we will have a stronger legitimacy. If it holds, it is an opportunity.’

Barak suggested in the interview that it would be ‘good’ if Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad ‘sat together, under French and European auspices.’

It was unclear if Barak was referring to an overall summit, which will include many chiefs of state, or to the possibility of one-on-one talks.

But, he said, Jerusalem and Damascus are unlikely to hold full peace negotiations before the end of the year, or without the involvement of the United States.

‘I don’t think we will have negotiations before the end of this year nor without the contribution of the Americans, who, alone, can help bridge the gaps,’ he said, adding he believed the United States would get involved in the future.

Barak said that while there were great strategic advantages to keeping the Golan, Israel was ‘ready to consider putting an end’ to its occupation of the territory.

‘At the right time, if the negotiations succeed, we will be ready to take difficult decisions,’ he said, echoing similar comments by Olmert.

Barak also called for tougher international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme, and said Russia, China and India should play a greater role in persuading Iran to give up nuclear activities that many in the West believe are aimed at making weapons.