Beckett defends her position on Iran

MARGARET Beckett, the new Foreign Secretary, has defended her decision not to rule out military action against Iran.

While her predecessor, Jack Straw, had said an invasion of the country was "inconceivable", Mrs Beckett has refused to go as far.

Instead, she has used the non-committal phrase that there was "no intention" to mount an attack on the Tehran regime over its nuclear programme.

Her remarks came as western diplomats reported that international weapons inspectors had discovered new traces of highly enriched uranium on nuclear equipment in Iran.

The Foreign Secretary had insisted that her semantics did not represent any shift in policy, even though it was not as unequivocal as the language used by Mr Straw.

"It is quite deliberately different," she told The World at One on BBC Radio 4.

She said she had decided within hours of her appointment last week that she would avoid the terms used by Mr Straw to avoid being the subject of "nit-picking analysis".

"So I decided to find a new form of words which is mine which I shall stick to. It is not the same form of words, but the intention behind each of those sets of phraseology - what the Prime Minister said, what Jack Straw said, what I've said - we are all saying the same thing.

"We are all saying there is no intention on anyone's part to take military action. That is my phraseology. There is no nuance of difference between us," she said.

Her assurances are unlikely to allay fears in Tehran where her appointment was sharply criticised in the press.

Tony Blair has already had to deny reports that he removed Mr Straw from the Foreign Office in response to complaints from the White House that he was insufficiently hawkish over Iran.

Craig Murray, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan and critic of the government's foreign policy, said that no-one should underestimate the possibility of military strikes against Iran.

"Margaret Beckett was basically saying: 'We don't have any intentions to invade Iran at this present moment but we might change our intentions tomorrow,'" Mr Murray said. If he were the Iranian ambassador to London he would be "very worried" by the phraseology.

Suspicions deepened among western leaders yesterday that Tehran may be concealing the full extent of its atomic enrichment programme after traces of enriched uranium were found.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said it took samples from equipment that had been acquired by a former research centre at Lavizan-Shiyan, which is linked to Iran's defence ministry. The centre was destroyed in 2004 before inspectors could examine it.

Samples of the uranium showed a "very high level of enrichment, close to weapons-grade", diplomats said.

However, another diplomat warned against rushing to judgment. "It's not a smoking gun. There could be many explanations. But it increases pressure on Iran to come clean."

Earlier, Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, had urged all sides to lower the temperature in the dispute and get round the negotiating table.

Speaking at the EU-Latin America summit in Vienna, Mr Annan appealed to Washington to negotiate directly with the Iranian government.

"I have asked all sides to lower the rhetoric and intensify diplomatic efforts to find a solution," he said.

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