U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan began talks Saturday pressing Iran over two major issues — to help ensure a halt in weapons shipments to Tehran's Lebanese ally Hezbollah and to compromise in its nuclear confrontation with the West.
His visit to Tehran comes two days after Iran failed to meet a U.N. deadline for suspending its enrichment of uranium, paving the way to possible sanctions against the Islamic republic, which the West fears is seeking to develop atomic weapons.
But Europe is launching a last-ditch attempt at negotiations with Tehran this week, and Annan said in a newspaper interview before arriving that he hoped for a diplomatic solution that would "avoid another conflict in a region already subjected to a great stress at this moment."
Asked about indications the United States wanted to move quickly on sanctions, Annan told the French daily Le Monde, "I do not believe that sanctions are the solution to all problems."
"There are moments when a bit of patience produces lots of effects. I think that is a quality we must exercise more often," he said in the interview published Saturday.
The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, plans to meet early in the week with the top Iranian nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani.
The tone from Annan's first meetings Saturday was positive. Larijani, said his talks with the U.N. chief were "constructive" and that "both sides agreed that problems should be solved through negotiations."
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki expressed Iranian backing for the U.N. cease-fire resolution in Lebanon, which calls for the halting of weapons to Hezbollah — though he did not directly address that issue.
"Iran has supported the Lebanese consensus on the resolution. U.N can improve tranquility on (Lebanon's) border by participation of players there," he said, according to the state Islamic Republic News Agency.
After an EU foreign ministers meeting in Finland, the bloc said there was no deadline for the talks but warned it would give Iran much time to resolve the standoff.
"We need some sessions — one or two, not more — to clarify some of the issues," Solana said at a news conference.
Annan also was urging Iranian leaders to help in the implementation of the U.N.-sponsored cease-fire in Lebanon. He told Le Monde he wants Iran to work with the international community and use its influence so Hezbollah can be disarmed in accordance with the U.N. truce resolution.
"I am very happy to be here in Tehran, to discuss implementation of resolution 1701, which deals with the situation in Lebanon. I will also expect to discuss issues of concern in this region to the international community," Annan told reporters after his arrival.
Annan, who is on a tour of the Middle East, started by meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. He was expected to meet with Larijani later in the day and hold talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday morning.
The U.N. chief likely faced a tough response on both issues. Just ahead of his arrival, Ahmadinejad vowed Saturday that Iran would forge ahead with its nuclear program despite U.S. pressure, state-run television reported.
Iran and Hezbollah also deny that Tehran supplies arms to the Shiite guerrillas. But many in the West, Israel and the Arab world believe Iran provided many of the rockets that Hezbollah fired at northern Israel during the 34-day war in Lebanon.
On Friday, Annan was in Syria, Hezbollah's other top ally. He said he secured a promise from Syrian President Bashar Assad to increase border patrols and work with Lebanese troops to thwart the arms flow to Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon.
But the promise was met with immediate skepticism from Israel and some in Lebanon.
U.N. resolution 1701, which halted the fighting Aug. 14, calls on countries not to supply weapons to any parties other than the Lebanese government.
Ahmadinejad maintained his tough tone on the nuclear issue Saturday, saying in a speech that "hyperbole against Iran's peaceful nuclear activities by Western countries especially the U.S. will continue ... But the resistance and awareness of this nation will defuse all these plots."
The Security Council set Thursday as the deadline for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, dangling the threat of sanctions if Iran defied its will.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Thursday that Iran had not suspended enrichment and that three years of probing had been unable to confirm "the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program" because of lack of cooperation from Tehran.
But Russia and China, among the five permanent members of the council with the power to veto its actions, are opposed to quick and harsh penalties because of their strong trade ties with Iran.
Iran says its nuclear program is intended only to obtain fuel for nuclear reactors that would generate electricity, but enrichment also can produce the material needed to make atomic bombs.