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China unmoved on Iran sanctions (BBC)

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the UN General Assembly, New York (23 Sept 2009)

Mr Ahmadinejad said Iran was ready to shake “honestly extended” hands

China says placing sanctions on Iran is not the right way to resolve the controversy over its nuclear plans.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu called on all sides to “redouble diplomatic efforts” to persuade Iran to end its nuclear programme.

Her remarks came after Russia indicated it could soften its longstanding opposition to further sanctions.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions are set to lead Thursday’s nuclear proliferation debate at the UN General Assembly.

Tehran says its nuclear programme is for civilian use only but many Western states believe it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

Speaking in Beijing, Ms Jiang said: “We believe that sanctions and exerting pressure are not the way to solve problems and are not conducive for the current diplomatic efforts on the Iran nuclear issue.”

Correspondents says Iran’s oil and gas industries are likely to be affected if sanctions are strengthened, which could explain China’s reluctance to back further restrictions.

Wide focus

Russia has already agreed to limited sanctions on Iran but has so far opposed any additions.

ANALYSIS
Quentin Sommerville
Quentin Sommerville, BBC News, Beijing

When Jiang Yu said that sanctions and pressure would not solve the Iranian nuclear issue, she was simply repeating China’s stated policy of non-interference in another country’s sovereignty.

China rarely votes “no” in the Security Council, but often abstains. However, Beijing has backed a number of resolutions that would open the way to sanctions against Iran, but did so with its nose firmly held. Sanctions don’t work says China, they only victimise ordinary citizens. But is this sound principle or just smart business?

Trade between China and Iran is booming – it jumped by a third between 2007 and 2008. The United States and others accuse China of sanctions-busting and helping Tehran’s weapons programme, something that Beijing has consistently denied.

On Wednesday, however, President Dmitry Medvedev said although they were rarely productive, sanctions were in some cases “inevitable”.

“We need to help Iran to [make] the right decisions,” he said, following a meeting with US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the UN meeting in New York.

The move was welcomed by the White House. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said Russia’s “willingness to play a constructive role is extremely important”.

The BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, Paul Reynolds, says Russia’s apparent change of direction could have been influenced by the US announcement last week that it was dropping plans for an anti-missile defence shield close to Russian borders.

But exactly how far Russia might go is not yet clear, our correspondent says.

In his address to the General Assembly on Wednesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not refer directly to the nuclear stand-off, but said Iran was ready to shake all hands “that are honestly extended to us”.

US officials have stressed that Thursday’s talks at the UN aim to create a “framework” for dealing with nuclear issues rather than focusing specifically on Iran.

Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama 23.9.09

“There is a deliberate effort here to focus on this issue comprehensively, and not use this meeting to focus on any specific country or problem,” said the US deputy permanent representative to the UN, Alex Wolff.

However, Iran is expected to dominate the agenda.

Six world powers are preparing to hold talks with Iranian officials on 1 October that are expected to cover global nuclear disarmament.

Mr Obama is hoping for a united position among the group but analysts say that if the talks yield nothing, he wants to pursue tougher sanctions against Tehran.

On Wednesday, British Foreign Minister David Miliband said the six powers had agreed Iran must give a “serious response” to accusations against it.

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Obama shelves Europe missile plan (BBC)

Barack Obama: “I’m confident… we have strengthened America’s national security”

US President Barack Obama has shelved plans for controversial bases in Poland and the Czech Republic in a major overhaul of missile defence in Europe.

The bases are to be scrapped after a review of the threat from Iran.

Mr Obama said there would be a “proven, cost-effective” system using land- and sea-based interceptors against Iran’s short- and medium-range missile threat.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has welcomed the US decision, calling it a “responsible move”.

Russia had always seen the shield as a threat.

However, there has been criticism of the decision in conservative circles in the US.

The US signed a deal in August 2008 with Poland to site 10 interceptors at a base near the Baltic Sea, and with the Czech Republic to build a radar station on its territory.

ANALYSIS
Kevin Connolly
Kevin Connolly, BBC News, Washington

It would be hard to invent a news story that tied together more strategic and political issues than the Obama administration’s decision to change its stance on the deployment of a missile defence shield in Eastern Europe.

It touches on Washington’s assessment of Iran’s military capabilities. There is an underlying assumption that Tehran’s capacity for mounting warheads on long-range missiles does not pose an immediate strategic headache.

It also sends a signal to the peoples of Central Europe about how President Barack Obama proposes to manage the post Cold War order in their neck of the woods in the next few years. And it raises questions about the administration’s much-talked-about desire to “hit the reset” button on its relationship with Russia.

The US had said the missile shield would be fully operational by 2012.

But President Obama this year ordered a review of the defence system, which was strongly backed by his predecessor George W Bush.

‘Stronger and smarter’

On Thursday, President Obama said in a live TV address that the change was needed to “deploy a defence system that best responds to the threats we face”.

He said a review had shown the need to switch strategy to defending against the short- and medium-range missiles that Iran could use to target Europe.

Twice Mr Obama referred to the need for a system that was “proven and cost effective”.

He said the new approach would provide “a stronger, smarter and swifter defence” of US and allied forces in Europe.

Mr Obama said he had spoken to both the Czech Republic and Poland and stressed his commitments to their defence.

But he said again that Russia’s concerns about the old system were “entirely unfounded”.

It is a concession to the Russians with absolutely nothing in return
John Bolton,
former Bush undersecretary

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs later stressed the overhaul was “not about Russia”.

Although the White House said the US “no longer planned to move forward” with the old shield scheme for Poland and the Czech Republic, Defence Secretary Robert Gates stressed the US was not abandoning missile defence of Europe.

He said negotiations were under way with both nations about deploying upgraded SM-3 interceptors from 2015.

The first phase of the new strategy, he said, would be to deploy “current and proven missile defence systems in the next two years”, including the sea-based Aegis and the current SM-3.

Iran says its missile development programme is solely for scientific, surveillance or defensive purposes, but there are concerns in the West and among Iran’s neighbours that the rockets could be used to carry nuclear weapons.

‘Responsible’

Mr Medvedev said the US decision was a “positive” one.

He said he would discuss the missile defence issue with President Obama during a visit to the United Nations in New York next week.

Mr Medvedev said in a TV address: “We value the US president’s responsible approach towards implementing our agreements. I am ready to continue the dialogue.”

Ground-based Midcourse Defense locations map

The two countries are currently in talks about reducing their nuclear weapons stockpiles, and the US move could influence Russia to be more co-operative, correspondents say.

Mr Medvedev said there were now “good conditions” for talks on missile reduction.

Gates on missile shield overhaul

However, there has already been some criticism in the US.

John Bolton, who was undersecretary of state for arms control and international security under President Bush, said the move was “unambiguously a bad decision”.

He said: “This gives away an important defensive mechanism against threats from countries like Iran and other rogue states, not only for the US but for Europe as well.

“It is a concession to the Russians with absolutely nothing in return.”

Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the US move was “a positive step”, Associated Press reported.

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Arctic Sea Iran arms link denied (BBC)

The Arctic Sea, file image

The ship’s disappearance continues to puzzle experts

Russia has denied media reports that a cargo ship which was apparently hijacked in July was carrying Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the reports that the ship had illegal arms on board were “absolutely untrue”.

The Maltese-flagged Arctic Sea vessel with 15 Russian crew went missing for more than two weeks. It was found on 16 August off West Africa.

Eight men were later charged with hijacking and piracy over the case.

The men, mostly from Estonia, are suspected of seizing the ship and its crew after raiding it disguised as police.

‘Serious people’

Speaking in Moscow, Mr Lavrov dismissed media speculation about S-300 missiles on board the Arctic Sea as “groundless”.

Russia’s top diplomat also promised a “transparent” investigation in which Maltese officials would also be invited to take part.

The 4,000-tonne vessel vanished in July days after leaving Finland with an apparent cargo of timber worth $1.8m (£1.1m), destined for the Algerian port of Bejaia.

Last week, Britain’s Sunday Times quotes sources in Russia and Israel claiming that the Arctic Sea was carrying arms to Iran and not timber.

It said that the sources claimed the ship had been loaded with S-300 missiles, Russia’s most advanced anti-aircraft weapon, while undergoing repairs in the Russian port of Kaliningrad.

The arms were sold by former military officers linked to the underworld, the Sunday Times reported.

Also last week, a Russian journalist fled his country after suggesting that the ship might have been carrying illegal weapons.

Mikhail Voitenko, the editor of the Sovfracht online maritime journal, said he had been told to leave Moscow or face arrest.

Speaking to the BBC from Turkey, Mr Voitenko said he had received a threatening phone call from “serious people” whom he suggested may have been members of Russia’s intelligence agency, the FSB.

The FSB has made no public comments on the allegations.

There has also been speculation the ship may have been intercepted by Mossad – Israel’s foreign intelligence service – in order to prevent a shipment of illegal arms to the Middle East.

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Russia ship mystery editor flees (BBC)

Mikhail Voitenko at a press conference in Moscow, 18 August 2009

Mr Voitenko said it was nonsense to suggest pirates had been involved

A journalist has fled Russia after suggesting the Arctic Sea cargo ship that was apparently hijacked in July may have been carrying illegal weapons.

Mikhail Voitenko said he had been told to leave Moscow or face arrest.

The editor of Sovfracht, an online maritime journal, fled on Wednesday, saying he may not be able to return as his life would be in danger.

Eight men, mainly from Estonia, have been charged with hijacking and piracy over the case.

The men are suspected of seizing the ship and its 15-man Russian crew after raiding it disguised as police.

The alleged hijackers were taken to Russia after the ship was spotted 300 miles (480km) off the west coast of Africa on 16 August.

Secret shipment

Mr Voitenko – who was among the first to cast doubt on official explanations about the ship’s disappearance – told the BBC it was nonsense to suggest pirates had been involved.

Suspected hijacker of the Arctic Sea being escorted in Moscow, 26 August 2009

Eight men have been charged with hijacking and piracy over the case

Instead he suggested the ship may have been carrying a secret shipment of weapons as part of a private business deal by state officials.

Speaking to the BBC from Turkey, Mr Voitenko said he had received a threatening phone call from “serious people” whom he suggested may have been members of Russia’s intelligence agency, the FSB.

The caller told Mr Voitenko that those involved in the mysterious case of the Arctic Sea were very angry with him because he had spoken publicly, and were planning on taking action against him, he said.

“As long as I am out of Russia I feel safe,” Mr Voitenko told the BBC. “At least they won’t be able to get me back to Russia and convict [me].”

He also said Nato knew exactly what had happened to the Arctic Sea.

A Nato spokesman said the alliance had been in contact with Russia throughout the crisis, but would not say anything more.

The FSB refused to comment on the allegations.

Further inspection

Mystery continues to surround the ship’s disappearance, amid speculation the ship may have been intercepted by Mossad – Israel’s foreign intelligence service – in order to prevent a shipment of illegal arms to the Middle East.

Arctic Sea, file image

There has been much speculation over what actually happened on the ship

The 4,000-tonne Maltese-flagged vessel vanished in July days after leaving Finland with an apparent cargo of timber worth $1.8m (£1.1m), destined for the Algerian port of Bejaia.

Observers have questioned why the alleged hijackers would risk seizing the Arctic Sea in one of Europe’s busiest shipping lanes for a relatively inexpensive cargo.

Russian authorities said nothing suspicious was found aboard the ship when it was found last month, but have said a more thorough inspection would be carried out when the Arctic Sea arrives in the Russian port of Novorossiisk.

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Arctic Sea transported Russian missiles (Interfax)

TALLINN. Aug 19 (Interfax) – The dry cargo ship Arctic Sea that was
reportedly attacked by pirates recently could have been involved in arms
trafficking, which is indirectly evident from the fact that Russian
combat planes and ships were dispatched to release the vessel, said
Tarmo Kouts, an EU rapporteur on piracy and former commander of the
Estonian defense forces.
“Only the presence of cruise missiles on board the ship can explain
Russia’s strange behavior in this whole story,” Kouts said in an article
published in the Wednesday issue of the Estonian newspaper Postimees.
If the vessel had been transporting illegal drugs, Russia would not
have taken such energetic steps to find the missing vessel, he said.
“This whole story looks so farfetched that it would have been naive
to believe Russia’s official version,” he said.
“First, the dry cargo ship’s owner officially tied to Finland but
having relation to Latvians, who were ethnic Russians, reported the
ship’s disappearance to the Russian president, after which three big
battleships and a frigate from the Black Sea were sent to chase it,”
Kouts said.
This naval unit was significantly stronger than that engaged in a
recent Somali piracy crisis, he noted.
The cargo that was on board the Arctic Sea, i.e. timber bound for
Algeria, could have been the best camouflage for arms contraband, Kouts
said.
“A whole alley of guided missiles can easily be hidden under stacks
of timber, because, in order to uncover them, the vessel needs to be
brought to a port, and its hold has to be emptied. They are not so easy
to uncover at sea,” he said.
Kouts emphasized that only the transportation of weapons can
explain Russia’s controversial behavior during the incident.

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France and Germany exit recession (BBC)

Shoppers in Printemps department store

Consumer spending has risen in both France and Germany

The French and German economies both grew by 0.3% between April and June, bringing to an end year-long recessions in Europe’s largest economies.

Stronger exports and consumer spending, as well as government stimulus packages, contributed to the growth.

The data came as a surprise, with few analysts expecting Germany and France to start to recover so soon.

But economic activity in the eurozone fell by 0.1%, showing the region as a whole is still in recession.

It was the fifth consecutive quarter of economic contraction in the eurozone, but was a marked improvement on the 2.5% drop recorded in the first three months of the year.

UK reaction

Markets reacted positively to the news, with the main German and French markets up more than 1% at midday.

In London, the FTSE 100 index rose 1.3%, with traders anticipating a positive effect on the UK economy, which by contrast shrank by 0.8% in the second quarter.

Asked about why the UK seemed to be lagging behind, Business Secretary Lord Mandelson said: “Different economies will show different patterns of behaviour.”

“But the key point is all these economies rely on each other; 55 to 56% of our trade is with the rest of Europe. So when [they are] recovering that is good news for our manufacturers and our exports here.”

France and Germany may have been less hard hit than the UK by the global economic slowdown because their financial sectors, which were at the heart of the crisis, account for a smaller proportion of their economies.

Export recovery

Germany was thrown into recession earlier in the year because its exports collapsed.

Hamburg harbour

The growth in exports in Germany, the world’s biggest exporter, was crucial

The latest figures showed German exports had grown at their fastest pace for nearly three years at 7%, with particularly strong growth in demand from rapidly-growing economies such as China.

The country’s Federal Statistics Office said that household and government expenditure had also boosted growth.

It added that imports had declined “far more sharply than exports, which had a positive effect on GDP growth”.

Reaction to the signs of Germany’s recovery, however, was mixed.

“The recession has ended, and it has ended sooner than we all thought. We expect to see growth of 1% in the third quarter, which is very strong for Germany, and I wouldn’t rule out the chance of even better growth,” said Andreas Rees at Unicredit.

But there are concerns that the banking system across Europe is still fragile and that the growth is reliant on government stimulus spending that will eventually have to come to an end.

BBC Europe business reporter Mark Sanders said that although the surprise news was highly welcome for those that have been suffering, there were questions about how strong and credible the economic recovery is.

“To draw a medical analogy, we’ve got the patient waking from a coma and talking to medical staff,” he said. “They’re not necessarily going to be running any marathons soon.”

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Bill Clinton meets N Korea leader (BBC)

Former US President Bill Clinton has met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during an unannounced visit to the country, state media have announced.

Mr Clinton is in Pyongyang to discuss the fate of jailed US journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

He is the highest-profile American to visit since his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, in 2000.

Analysts say Mr Clinton may also try to ease the deadlock over the North’s nuclear ambitions.

The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said that Mr Clinton had “courteously” conveyed a verbal message from US President Barack Obama, although the White House said that Mr Clinton had not carried a message from Mr Obama.

ANALYSIS
John Sudworth
John Sudworth
BBC News, Seoul

According to North Korea’s official state media, Kim Jong-il hosted a dinner for the former US president, before the two men exchanged what is described as a “broad range of opinion”.

Face-to-face time with the North Korean leader is extremely rare for Western politicians, and granting the opportunity to Bill Clinton could be a sign that he is going to be given what he came for, the release of two American journalists.

Mr Clinton is also reported to have delivered a verbal message from President Obama, but the White House is remaining very tight lipped. It says the case of the journalists must remain separate from wider political issues.

Washington made no announcement of Mr Clinton’s trip prior to his arrival, but in a later statement stressed that this was a private visit.

“While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.

“We do not want to jeopardise the success of former President Clinton’s mission.”

However, North Korea analyst Prof Hazel Smith, of the UK’s Cranfield University, told the BBC that Mr Clinton would have the full backing of the White House.

“This is not a private mission, although it being billed as such,” she said. “There is no way that [former] President Clinton, married to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton… would be taking this step without the full support of the US administration.”

The last visit to North Korea by a former American president – Jimmy Carter in 1994 – led to an important step forward in relations between the two countries, and Mr Clinton may be hoping his trip could have the same effect.

But some analysts question the wisdom of such a high-profile visit so soon after North Korea conducted a string of nuclear and missile tests in defiance of the UN Security Council – saying it may be seen by Pyongyang as a reward for bad behaviour.

Unmarked plane

Mr Clinton landed in Pyongyang in an unmarked plane and was greeted at the airport by North Korean officials, including chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan and Yang Hyong-sop, vice president of parliament.

US JOURNALISTS JAILED
Journalists Euna Lee (L) and Laura Ling
17 March: Euna Lee, left, and Laura Ling seized by North Korean border guards while reporting for California-based Current TV
8 June: Sentenced to 12 years in jail for “hostile acts” and illegal entry into North Korea
16 June: North Korea says journalists have “admitted and accepted” their guilt
10 July: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeals for an amnesty for the two
4 August: Former US President Bill Clinton arrives in Pyongyang to discuss the journalists’ fate

As he stepped down from the plane, a little girl came forward to present him with a bouquet of flowers.

No official itinerary for the visit has been announced.

Analysts say that Kim Jong-il is eager to improve relations with Washington as he prepares to name a successor.

Mr Kim is thought to have suffered a stroke a year ago, and also has chronic diabetes and heart disease. Analysts say his third son is already being lined up to take over power one day.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee were found guilty of entering North Korea illegally across the Chinese border in March, and sentenced to 12 years’ hard labour.

They were arrested by North Korean guards while filming a video about refugees for California-based internet broadcaster Current TV.

According to KCNA, the two reporters have admitted entering the country illegally.

But the women’s families have always claimed that Lee, 36, and Ling, 32, had no intention of crossing into North Korea.

They fear the two reporters may become political pawns in negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.

Last month US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requested an amnesty for the women asking that they be allowed to return home.

Former releases

This is not the first time a senior US statesman has gone to North Korea to negotiate for the release of American citizens.

In 1994, then-congressman Bill Richardson – now governor of New Mexico – helped negotiate the release of Bobby Hall, one of two pilots of a US army helicopter shot down after straying into North Korea.

Bill Clinton and Kim Jong-il on North Korean TV

North Korean media have shown images of Mr Clinton and President Kim

Two years later he negotiated the release of Evan Hunziker, who was detained on suspicion of spying after swimming the Yalu river border.

Critics say that Mr Clinton’s trip will be exploited for maximum propaganda value by Pyongyang.

However, although Bill Clinton’s arrival was covered by North Korea’s evening television news, it was not until after apparently more newsworthy items, such as the improving quality standards at a biscuit factory, our correspondent in Seoul, John Sudworth, says.

Video: North Korea

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