PRAGUE, April 27, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The foreign ministers of NATO's 26 member countries are set to meet today in the Bulgarian capital, with concerns over Iran's nuclear program expected to feature prominently during the two days of informal talks in Sofia.
But the main order of business will be the alliance's soon-to-expand deployment in Afghanistan, as well as the possibilities of eventually opening NATO to aspiring members such as Croatia, Albania, Macedonia, Ukraine, and Georgia.
Iran is not on NATO's official agenda and the alliance's spokesman, James Appathurai, stressed that "NATO does not have a formal role to play" in the debate over Tehran's nuclear program.
However, the issue will be discussed at an informal dinner bringing together NATO and EU nations on the sidelines of the informal spring gathering in the Bulgarian capital.
'Stepping Stone' To Expansion
But the opening session today is expected to focus on bids by Croatia, Albania, Macedonia, Ukraine, and Georgia to join the alliance.
Appathurai, addressing a news conference in Sofia today, said those talks would help to shape the agenda at NATO's November summit in Riga. That's where NATO is expected to send its first clear "signal" as to the possibility of eventually opening the alliance to the five aspiring members:
"Sofia will be an opportunity for foreign ministers to look forward to Riga," Appathurai said. "Indeed, this whole ministerial meeting is a stepping stone toward the very important Riga summit. But they will have a discussion on enlargement."
Another key issue in Sofia will be NATO's deepening ties with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea as part of the alliance's growing role in fighting global threats.
NATO spokesman Appathurai on April 27Echoing comments on April 25 by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Appathurai said that today's "threats are global, or transnational at least, and we have to make sure that the team that addresses them is transnational."
Australia already has troops as part of the 9,000-strong NATO deployment in Afghanistan and is contributing to the U.S.-led military presence in Iraq, where NATO has a security training mission under way.
Appathurai said the meeting in Sofia will need to discuss the Afghan mission, which is set to grow to 16,000 troops.
"Tomorrow morning, the 26 NATO foreign ministers will meet again..., and they will look at the political aspects of NATO's operations and missions," he said. "I am reasonably sure that Afghanistan will be the first order of business, because as you know, this is NATO's most challenging mission, and NATO's in the process of expanding it."
Some in the alliance, however, are skeptical of U.S. calls for closer ties with countries such as Australia. European states including Germany and France are concerned this will make NATO unwieldy and discriminates against regional nuclear powers such as China, India, and Pakistan.
The ministers are also scheduled on April 28 to meet with members of the NATO-Russia Council, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
"We will have the NATO-Russia Council, where I expect a good political discussion," de Hoop Scheffer said on April 25 in reference to those talks. "What I expect as subjects to come up there are the Balkans, Afghanistan -- the counternarcotics program together with the Russians. I do not exclude that the CFE treaty -- the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty -- will come up. I am sure Belarus might be a point of discussion for the NATO-Russia Council. The allies welcome, and I do welcome, the recent agreement that Russia has agreed upon with Georgia on the Russian bases in Georgia."
Meanwhile, the controversial Iran issue looms large.
Discussions about Iran's nuclear program will come ahead of a scheduled report on April 28 to the UN Security Council by Mohammad el-Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, on Iran's degree of cooperation.
Iran has refused to comply with UN Security Council demands that it suspend uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for nuclear reactors or material for warheads.
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