Saudi Arabia denies statements that it was ready to press China into supporting Iran sanctions

Obama says U.S. to impose sanctions, Kouchner affirms not before June

Iran’s opposition leaders slam regime, accuse it of stripping Iran of its friends

Iraq’s electoral commission rejects requests by Maliki to repeat vote counting as Allawi’s coalition leads

President Barack Obama said on Wednesday the United States would pursue "aggressive sanctions" to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon that could potentially spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Obama, who had made the goal of pursuing dialogue with Iran a cornerstone of his administration's foreign policy at the beginning of his presidency, said he had been successful in getting the international community to isolate Tehran.

"As we've seen, the Iranian government has been more concerned about preventing their people from exercising their democratic and human rights than trying to solve this problem diplomatically," Obama said in an interview on Fox News Channel's Special Report with Bret Baier.

"That's why we're going to go after aggressive sanctions. We haven't taken any options off the table. We are going to keep on pushing," Obama said.

Iran denies it is seeking to build a nuclear bomb and says its nuclear program is aimed at generating electricity.

Obama said preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon was one of his administration's highest priorities.

"It is a hard problem but is a problem that we need to solve because if Iran gets a nuclear weapon then you could potentially see a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East and that would be tremendously damaging to our national security interests," he said.

U.S. officials said on Tuesday the pace of Iran's nuclear weapons development appears to have slowed, buying time for a new round of sanctions now and potentially more sweeping measures later.

A U.N. resolution on new sanctions against Iran may not be ready until June and if a vote on it fails, European states could take unilateral measures instead, French and Finnish ministers said on Sunday.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said France remained determined to get U.N. backing for sanctions targeting Iran's nuclear program, but indicated that the support of Russia and China among the five permanent Security Council members was some way off.

"We are ... talking and talking, trying to get an agreement by negotiation and at the same time working on sanctions. I believe that yes, before June it will be possible, but I'm not so sure," Kouchner told reporters during a foreign ministers' retreat in northern Finland.

"Before June I hope, but who am I to hope or decide," he said, pointing out that France had originally hoped to get a U.N. sanctions package prepared in February, when it was chairing the Security Council.

If the United States, Britain, France and Germany -- the four leading the drive for sanctions that are expected to target Iranian banks and senior members of the Revolutionary Guard -- fail to secure U.N. backing, the EU looks likely to join the United States in imposing unilateral sanctions.

Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, who is hosting a weekend gathering of foreign ministers from the EU and Turkey in Lapland, said on Saturday there was "consensus enough" in the EU for unilateral sanctions and said it would be discussed at the next EU foreign ministers' meeting on March 22nd.

On Sunday he reiterated that point, although clarified it by saying that consensus was only "emerging." That clarification came after a morning of discussions with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who opposes sanctions on Iran.

"Failing (U.N. sanctions), I think there is an emerging consensus inside the European Union that we will take some unilateral measures from the EU side," Stubb said. "What those exact measures are have not been discussed in detail."

The United States and its allies believe another round of sanctions is needed to prevent Iran making further progress on its nuclear program, which Iran says is for peaceful energy and medical purposes but the West says is for weapons.

Kouchner said the measures France wanted included sanctions on Iran's banks and insurance companies, and said it should also involve revoking travel permits for specific people. But he said it would not target the Iranian people or the energy sector.

"We are not talking about blocking the exportation (of oil products) from the Gulf of Hormuz, even if some strategic people are thinking about it," he said. "It will be simple, clear and economic."

Davutoglu, who has visited Iran several times to try to broker a uranium exchange deal that might prevent the need for sanctions, said he had had an open exchange with his colleagues, including EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, on the Iran nuclear issue and remained convinced sanctions were wrong.

"We shared our views and we are trying to develop a common approach," he said when asked if he had managed to convince his EU counterparts that sanctions on Iran were the wrong track.

"I believe there is room for diplomacy and the European Union can play a significant role. If there is good strategic cooperation between Turkey and the EU, that will help not only the Iran nuclear issue but all other regional issues in the Middle East and the Balkans," he said.

Meanwhile, an official Saudi source has denied statements attributed by news agencies to the U.S. Secretary of Defense claiming that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is willing to use its influence to pressure China to support sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

The source said 'This issue is not true and had not been discussed during the visit paid by the U.S. Secretary of Defense to the Kingdom recently'.

In Tehran, a day after his apartment block was besieged by hardliners calling for his prosecution, defiant Iranian opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi lashed out at the government, saying it was "plagued with despotism", his website reported on Tuesday.

The cleric, who continues to question the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election, said it was still difficult for him to understand how the hardliner won the poll last year given his government's track record.

"Unfortunately, the (Islamic) republic has been plagued with despotism and elections have become meaningless. It has become only a term," Karroubi told visitors from the central province of Isfahan, according to his website sahamnews.org.

"How can one believe that a president with so many objections against him such as inflation, unemployment... gets more votes than he got in his first election?"

Ahmadinejad has been accused of stoking inflation with populist policies that have involved pumping large sums of money into the economy.

Karroubi again insisted that Ahmadinejad's re-election was "not due to the popular vote which is why we saw an explosion of people" on the streets after the official results were announced.

In the immediate aftermath of the declaration of the results of the June 12 poll, hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters poured onto the streets to reject Ahmadinejad's re-election.

Karroubi's remarks came two days after hardliners reportedly gathered outside his Tehran home, calling for him to be put to death.

His wife, Fatemeh, charged that a group of "thugs" paid by "corrupt" government officials had vandalized the apartment block where the family lives.

Iran's Fars news agency described the small but vocal crowd which gathered outside the flats as "students and families of martyrs" of the Iran-Iraq war.

Pictures carried by the pro-government Borna news agency showed the building defaced with red coloring, while slogans pronouncing "Death to Karroubi" were scribbled on the walls.

Karroubi and former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi have led a protest movement against Ahmadinejad since his June re-election, which they reject as massively rigged.

Karroubi was attacked by hardliners during Iran's commemoration of the Islamic revolution of 1979 on February 11 and his car was shot at in January in the city of Qazvin, west of Tehran.

The outspoken cleric, who with Mousavi stood against Ahmadinejad in the June vote, has infuriated hardliners by charging some post-election detainees had been raped in jail. Iranian authorities vehemently deny the allegations.

On the other hand, in Baghdad, Iraq's electoral commission Friday rejected as "baseless" claims of fraud and ballot-rigging made by a leading member of the European Parliament.

At the same time, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) said it was "fully prepared to study any evidence provided in this regard, and to take action in accordance with the electoral law and regulations."

The IEHC's statement followed comments made this week by Struan Stevenson, a lawmaker who acts as the head of the European Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq.

Stevenson spoke of "widespread cheating" which may have "fatally undermined the final result" of the March 7 election and which could "plunge Iraq back into a spiral of sectarian violence."

The Scottish conservative is seen as a fierce critic of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and of his State of Law coalition, and has accused it of manipulating the vote against former prime minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqi List.

The IHEC called such claims "surprising," saying they were made "without any evidence."

It said every step of its work had been conducted "on the basis of integrity, transparency, professionalism and justice" and noted that international monitors had supervised its work.

Latest provisional results, based on 89 per cent of votes counted, Friday confirmed al-Maliki's State of Law coalition enjoying a narrow lead over Allawi's Iraqi List.