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West raises stakes over Iran nuclear programme

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big-3President Obama and the leaders of France and Britain have deliberately raised the stakes in the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear programme by dramatising the disclosure that it is building a second uranium enrichment plant. Their shoulder-to-shoulder statements of resolve, less than a week before Iran opens talks with six major powers in Geneva, raised more questions than they answer.

It turns out that the United States has known for a long time (how long?) that Iran had been building the still incomplete plant near Qom. Did it share that intelligence with the U.N. nuclear watchdog, and if not, why not? Why did it wait until now, in the middle of a G20 summit in Pittsburgh, to make the announcement — after Iran had notified the International Atomic Energy Authority of the plant’s existence on Monday, after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had delivered a defiant speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday and after the Security Council had adopted a unanimous resolution calling for an end to the spread of nuclear weapons on Thursday?

Is this all part of Obama’s choreography to  build international pressure on Iran by getting Russia, in return for the dropping of plans to put a U.S. missile shield in Poland the Czech Republic, to threaten more sanctions against Tehran? A U.S. official says Obama shared the intelligence with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev at the United Nations this week and China had only just been informed. Did Obama try and fail to get Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao — both in Pittsburgh — to join the three Western leaders on the podium? Or was his hand forced on timing by the fact that the New York Times had got wind of the Iranian nuclear plant and was set to publish the news on Friday?

The division of labour between Obama, Sarkozy and Brown was striking. The U.S. president sounded stern but his tone was measured. He stressed his commitment to dialogue and negotiation with Iran and to Tehran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy. He did not mention sanctions, let alone the possibility of military action. It fell to the Europeans to inject a tone of menace.

Forget about bankers’ bonuses

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Bank bonuses have been a red herring of the financial crisis, repeatedly deflecting attention from deeper problems. So it is disappointing that the leaders of the G20 nations propose to squander yet more time on the subject in Pittsburgh.

While the French may have recently watered down their proposed curbs on bonuses, their voter-pleasing plans still look likely to be at the heart of the meeting. Worse, they seem to be pushing aside the United States’ sensible proposals for tougher capital rules for banks.

Shelved missile shield tests NATO unity

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foghAfter just six weeks as NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen has his first crisis. The alliance may be slowly bleeding in an intractable war in Afghanistan, but the immediate cause is the U.S. administration’s decision to shelve a planned missile shield due to have been built in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The shield, energetically promoted by former President George W. Bush, was designed to intercept a small number of missiles fired by Iran or some other ”rogue state”. But Russia saw it as a threat to its own nuclear deterrent and NATO’s new east European members saw it as a useful deterrent against Russian bullying, by putting U.S. strategic assets on their soil.

Obama playing a weak hand with Iran

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The announcement that the major powers, including the United States, are going to open talks with Iran on Oct. 1 ought to be a source of rejoicing. After all, isn’t this what much of the world has been urging for several years, while the European Union conducted a frustrating, low-key dialogue like the warm-up band at a rock concert?

So why is there so little excitement about the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany sitting down at the table for comprehensive talks with the Islamic Republic?

There he goes again…

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sarkobamaHo hum! Another G20 summit, another Sarkozy walkout threat.

The French president’s menaces to throw his toys out of his pram have become a regular feature of the run-up to each meeting of the world’s leading economic powers, making them a much debased coinage.  Sarko’s strops are now as routine a precursor to G20 gatherings as the vacuuming of red carpet or the deployment of flower arrangements.

In April, he vowed to storm out of the London G20 summit and refuse to sign the final communique unless France and Germany got their way on binding regulation of all financial markets. He declared victory and dropped the threat before the meeting even began. This time, according to his chief-of-staff, the issue at stake is binding curbs on bankers’ bonuses. It is a strange cause for a conservative politician to be pushing, but with Sarkozy, the emphasis is on politics rather than ideology.

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