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Sun 10 Feb 2008 10:35 AM

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Olmert steps up rhetoric on Iran

Israeli prime minister urges EU to exert more economic and diplomatic pressure on Islamic state.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plans to use a visit to Germany beginning on Sunday to lobby for tougher measures to force Iran to curb a nuclear programme he has called a threat to Israel's existence.

"Israel believes that this is the time for more pressure on the regime in Tehran. It's time to upgrade the economic and diplomatic pressure," said a senior Israeli official, who declined to be named.

"This has to be done, obviously, at the United Nations, but also bilaterally," said the official, urging countries that have economic interests in Iran "to exert their own pressure".

Germany has traditionally been among the top exporters to Iran, sending 4.1 billion euros of goods in 2006.

The US has accused Iran of having a secret programme to build nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies.
 
The Israeli official said the Iranian issue would likely "play a large part" in Olmert's talks on Tuesday with Chancellor Angela Merkel. A German government spokesman also said Iran would be a major topic of discussion.

Last month, Germany joined the five permanent UN Security Council members - Britain, the US, France, Russia and China - in circulating a proposal for a third sanctions resolution against Iran calling for mandatory travel bans, asset freezes and vigilance on all banks in the Islamic Republic.

Diplomats believe a vote is weeks away, with Washington frustrated at the pace at which the council is considering the draft and some countries' desire to wait until a report on Iran due later this month from the UN's nuclear watchdog.

Olmert said last month Israel would not be reconciled to a nuclear Iran and "all options are on the table". Israel is widely believed to have built atomic weapons of its own.

On Wednesday, diplomats said Iran was testing an advanced centrifuge at its Natanz nuclear complex, a move that could lead to Tehran enriching uranium much faster and gaining the means to build atom bombs.

Iran says it wants nuclear energy only for electricity so it can export more oil. But it is under sanctions for hiding the programme until 2003, preventing UN inspectors since then from verifying it is wholly peaceful and refusing to suspend it.

During his Berlin talks, Olmert will brief Merkel on peace negotiations he opened with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after a US-led conference in Annapolis, Maryland in November.

"Germany and the European Union will do everything in their power to support the peace process... Our goal is that a secure and stable Israel and a Palestinian state can live as neighbours in the region in peace and freedom," Merkel said on Saturday.

US President George W. Bush has voiced confidence a Palestinian statehood deal would be reached before he leaves office in January, but Israeli and Palestinian leaders have publicly expressed doubts the target date could be met.

The Israeli official said Olmert's visit to Berlin would help to strengthen an "already excellent relationship" with Germany and build on Israel's "remarkable improvement" in ties with the EU over the past five years.

German officials said Merkel was keen to strengthen bilateral ties and that the talks with Olmert would prepare the ground for wider government consultations due to take place in Israel in March. (Reuters)

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