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EU says it's too early to sanction Iran

LAPPEENRANTA, Finland -- Despite mounting US pressure for sanctions against Iran, the European Union said yesterday that it is too early to punish Tehran for its failure to halt uranium enrichment by the UN Security Council's deadline.

The call for renewed diplomacy came as Iran's president vowed never to give up a nuclear program that he said is being misrepresented by the West.

``Exploitation of peaceful nuclear energy is our obvious right. We will never give up our legal right," state television quoted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as telling a rally in Maku, Iran. ``The West's claim that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons is a sheer lie."

Iran ignored the Security Council's Thursday deadline to suspend uranium enrichment, opening the way for consideration of economic or other sanctions against the Islamic republic, which the United States and others suspect is trying to develop atomic weapons.

President Bush said Thursday that ``there must be consequences" for Iran's defiance, saying ``the world now faces a grave threat from the radical regime in Iran."

But EU leaders cautioned against pushing a confrontation.

``This is not the time or place" for sanctions, Finland's foreign minister, Erkki Tuomioja, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said after a meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers. ``For the EU, diplomacy remains the number one way forward."

The EU as a whole has been a moderate voice on the Iran issue. However, Britain and France support tough action, while Germany is also believed to back that stance.

And the bloc stressed Iran would not be given unlimited time to resolve suspicions about its nuclear aims and demands for strengthened international supervision of its atomic program.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said he would meet with Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, in the coming days, likely in Europe.

``That does not mean that Iran has indefinite time," Solana said. ``We hope that at the next meeting, or couple of meetings, we have enough knowledge [about Iran's position] to see if formal negotiations can start."

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