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Germany’s Westerwelle Urges Iran to Begin ‘Serious Dialogue’

The U.S. and the European Union are urging Iran to return to talks on its disputed nuclear program, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said, amid steps to expand economic sanctions on the Islamic republic.

If Iran’s leaders agree to a “serious dialogue,” they must be prepared to discuss steps to give up “options for nuclear weapons,” he said in an interview yesterday at Bloomberg’s Washington office.

“Just meetings for propaganda and show is not what we are seeking,” he said.

Westerwelle spoke as he and other EU foreign ministers prepared to meet Jan. 23 to consider imposing an oil embargo and additional financial sanctions against the country, and as international nuclear inspectors plan to visit the capital, Tehran.

“A serious dialogue means that we have the commitment of the Iranian government” to address what the U.S. and Europe say is Iran’s prohibited work toward possible nuclear weapons, Westerwelle said. “This is important.”

Westerwelle was in Washington to discuss Iran and other foreign policy priorities with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He said the EU remains committed to the euro common currency and will build barriers to stem the debt crisis.

“We have to erect a firewall,” Westerwelle said in a separate interview on Bloomberg Television. “We have to show solidarity. We have to support those countries that are now in serious trouble.” He said “a long-term solution” is being sought.

Euro Outlook

The “euro currency is strong, is successful and will survive,” Westerwelle said. “It is absolutely decisive that we stay together in the euro region, that we understand Europe and the euro zone is not only our destiny, it’s also our desire.”

At a press conference with Clinton, Westerwelle said that “the door for serious dialogue remains open” with Iran. Clinton stressed the benefits of engagement for the Iranian people.

“We do not seek conflict” with Iran, Clinton said. “We strongly believe the people of Iran deserve a better future. They can have that future, the country can be reintegrated into the global community, able to share in the benefits when their government definitively turns away from pursuing nuclear weapons.”

Iran says its nuclear program is intended to generate electricity and also has medical uses.

Tougher Sanctions

Dennis Ross, a former Middle East adviser to President Barack Obama, said the present stand-off over Iran’s nuclear program differs from earlier clashes in the strength and breadth of the sanctions assembled by the U.S. and its allies.

“There’s one big difference now, and that difference is that the pressure is now dramatically higher,” Ross said in a telephone interview. Iran’s “currency has been significantly devalued, they’re facing a boycott of their oil, this goes much more to the heart of managing their economy,” he said.

EU foreign ministers meet on Jan. 23 in Brussels to discuss freezing Iran’s central bank assets and imposing a ban on Iranian oil imports, a decision that requires unanimous backing among the bloc’s 27 nations. The embargo would hurt countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain, which are dependent on Iranian supplies and would need to find alternate sources.

‘Difficult Situation’

Westerwelle acknowledged that Greece is “in an extremely difficult situation” but said that widening sanctions on Iran’s energy and financial sectors was the right move. The foreign minister said the prospect of higher oil costs pales compared to the strategic costs if Iran obtained nuclear weapons, which he said would be “10 to 100 times more.”

Turkey, which borders Iran, is opposed to its neighbor’s nuclear program while remaining skeptical about the potential success of sanctions, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan said in Warsaw today. Iran has said it would accept an offer by the Turkish government to host a fresh round of talks with the five permanent members of the UN, Babacan added.

“It is the natural right of every sovereign nation to own and use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes,” Babacan said at a press conference. “But we are against nuclear weapons and don’t want them in our region. We believe Iran has to be more transparent and collaborative with the western world.”

Oil Embargo

Clinton and Westerwelle expressed optimism that EU members would agree the oil embargo.

“There is a realistic chance that we will have a clear result of our meeting on Monday,” he said in the interview with reporters and editors.

The EU yesterday released an Oct. 21 letter that foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton wrote to Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi laying out the EU’s interest in talks. The letter suggests confidence-building measures and a step-by-step approach without offering details of what those measures would entail.

The main focus of the talks needs to be on “developing practical steps aimed at rebuilding confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature” of Iran’s nuclear activities, Ashton said in the letter.

“It is crucial to look for concrete results,” she wrote.

‘Seeking Clarity’

Iran still hasn’t responded to the letter. On Jan. 19, Salehi said that he has asked Turkey to deliver a letter to Ashton that proposes talks be revived.

“We all are seeking clarity about the meaning behind Iran’s public comments that they are willing to engage, but we have to see a seriousness and sincerity of purpose coming from them,” Clinton said.

The U.S. and EU standards for restarting discussions with Iran effectively set preconditions that may scuttle the prospects for engagement, Vali Nasr, a former adviser to the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, said in an interview yesterday.

“That’s not a good way to do diplomacy,” said Nasr, now a professor of international politics at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.

As the EU pressed its interest in renewing talks with Iran, French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned that a military confrontation would unleash chaos in the Middle East. He urged that “much stronger sanctions” be adopted in an effort to prevent a clash, including the freeze of central bank assets and the oil import ban.

Iranian Threats

Tensions with Iran have risen in recent weeks with Vice President Reza Rahimi warning on Dec. 27 that Iran, the second-biggest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries after Saudi Arabia, may close the Strait of Hormuz if western nations block its crude oil sales.

Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, said on the Charlie Rose show Jan. 18 that his country doesn’t plan to do so “unless Iran is threatened seriously and somebody wants to tighten the noose.”

“I believe that we’re making it clear” to Iran, Clinton said, that “its pursuit of nuclear weapons and its needless provocations, such as the threats regarding the Strait of Hormuz, place it on a dangerous path.”

Nuclear Inspectors

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency are due to arrive in Tehran on Jan. 29 to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, the Iranian state-run Mehr news agency reported Jan. 18, citing Iran’s ambassador to the UN nuclear watchdog.

Commenting on the euro crisis, Westerwelle said that it is a crucial time “not only for Greece, but for the euro zone.”

“We have to support those countries that are now in serious trouble,” Westerwelle said in the television interview. “It is necessary that structural reforms come through in Greece.”

“Our German commitment is that all European countries stay on board, that all members of the euro zone stay on board and that we solve this crisis together,” Westerwelle said in the meeting with Bloomberg reporters and editors. He said he has seen some “positive signals” at the beginning of 2012.

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