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EU, U.S. Meet Arabs To Allay Fears Over Iran

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana (right) with Iran's top nuclear envoy Said Jalili (file photo)

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana (right) with Iran's top nuclear envoy Said Jalili (file photo)

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (Reuters) -- U.S. and European officials have met Arab foreign ministers to allay concerns that the West's focus on halting Iran's nuclear ambitions may leave Tehran's quest for more regional influence unchecked.

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said he told the ministers that talks with Iran about its disputed nuclear program were at "an impasse" but that he hoped for a new round of negotiations.

The meeting was attended by foreign ministers from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Morocco, and Bahrain, as well as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

An observer at the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity, quoted the Jordanian foreign minister as saying: "The nuclear file became a crisis, but for us Iran's search for hegemony has been an enduring crisis."

The minister mentioned concerns about Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and over the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, the observer told Reuters.

The observer said Solana and Kouchner seemed surprised by the frankness and vehemence of the Arab ministers in voicing their concerns. The West fears the Islamic Republic, the world's fourth-largest oil producer, is seeking to build nuclear arms.

Iran's Regional Ambitions

Iran says it only wants to generate electricity and has repeatedly ruled out halting uranium enrichment, which can have both civilian and military purposes. Its refusal to do so has drawn three rounds of UN sanctions since 2006.

A senior U.S. official told reporters that Rice had discerned worry among the Arab ministers that the West, and particularly the Europeans, did not fully understand their concerns about Iran's regional ambitions.

Solana said the talks at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh were held at the request of the Arab ministers. Solana, Rice, and Kouchner were in Egypt to attend the meeting of the Quartet of Middle East negotiators, which comprises the European Union, United Nations, Russia, and the United States.

"I have sent a letter to [Iran's top nuclear negotiator Said] Jalili a couple of days ago, and I hope there would be a possibility for another meeting," Solana told Reuters. "But for the moment we have not obtained a response that we expected from the last meeting we had in July."

Solana represents the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia in the talks with Iran. The six powers offered in June to hold off from seeking further sanctions if Iran freezes expansion of its nuclear work.

Iran responded with a noncommittal letter and Western countries said they would look at stepping up sanctions.

Russia and China, which gave reluctant backing to three previous sanctions resolutions that included asset freezes and travel bans on specific Iranian individuals and companies, are not supporting further UN measures for the time being.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was present in Sharm el-Sheikh but did not attend the meeting on Iran.

The UN Security Council in September passed a resolution that again ordered Tehran to halt enrichment but imposed none of the new sanctions Washington and its allies want.

Iran has dismissed the latest resolution as "unconstructive" and has made clear it would not bow to international pressure to halt enrichment.