By Adrian Croft
NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Tackling Iran's nuclear program will become more urgent over the next year and the world must not be distracted from it by the focus on the Arab Spring popular uprisings, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Tuesday.
Hague said U.S. allegations of an Iranian-linked plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington were separate from the dispute over Western suspicions Iran is covertly trying to develop atom bombs and would not stop efforts to resolve it.
But he said Britain would seek to "step up the pressure" on the Islamic Republic, which already faces extensive sanctions, if it did not change its nuclear policy.
Western powers are locked in a stand-off with Iran over its nuclear program, which they allege is aimed at building a nuclear weapon, despite Tehran's insistence that it want only electricity generation from its enrichment of uranium.
"I think this issue will become more urgent over the next year," Hague said in an interview with Reuters shortly before arriving in Mauritania on the latest leg of a tour of North and West Africa also taking him to Libya, Morocco and Algeria.
This was because Iran had stepped up its nuclear work by increasing the fissile content of its enriched uranium to the 20 percent level and moving centrifuge machines to a previously secret underground bunker near Qom, he said.
"We must not be distracted from it by the momentous events of the Arab Spring. We must not ignore the steadily more urgent threat of Iran's nuclear program," Hague said.
The United Nations' nuclear watchdog (IAEA) is expected to raise international pressure on Iran with a report next month that is likely to heighten suspicions about the Islamic state's atomic ambitions, Western diplomats say.
"I don't know what it (the report) will say, but our view is that the Iranian behavior is not consistent with a peaceful nuclear program," Hague said.
SAUDI AMBASSADOR PLOT
Asked if the IAEA report would lead to further sanctions against Iran, Hague said: "We will want to step up the pressure on Iran if Iranian policy does not change. It may be that this report will help to concentrate minds in other countries on that."
U.S. allegations of an Iranian-linked conspiracy to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington would not make it harder to resume negotiations between six world powers and Iran over its nuclear program, Hague said.
The plot accusations were separate from the nuclear issue but "they don't help the atmosphere of our relations."
British concerns on other subjects "do not prevent us from trying to settle the nuclear issue. On that we will maintain the twin-track approach of attempting negotiations but also implementing sanctions and over time intensifying sanctions."
Hague said there was "always hope" of a resumption of nuclear talks with Iran but no immediate movement on it.
Turning to wider Middle East issues, the British government continued to have confidence in former prime minister Tony Blair as an international Middle East envoy, Hague said.
Senior Palestinians have called for Blair's replacement, accusing him of bias in favor of Israel.
"I continue to support him in that role. Of course people receive criticism in any such role," Hague, a Conservative, said of Blair, former leader of the now-opposition Labour Party.
On Syria, Hague said Britain would look at what further sanctions it could take with the rest of the European Union.
"I don't want to pretend that we have a magic lever on Syria. We have less leverage than we did in Libya and we would not countenance military intervention," he said.
Asked if Britain should consider recognizing the opposition Syrian National Council, Hague said: "We are not at that point yet."
Britain was stepping up its contacts with Syrian activists spearheading pro-democracy demonstrations now seven months old but "neither we nor any other country are at the point of recognizing the Syrian National Council," he said.
Hague voiced concern about al Qaeda extending its influence south through the Sahara region and said there were fears of al Qaeda extending its influence as far as Nigeria, where Islamist sect Boko Haram claimed responsibility for an August bombing of a U.N. office.
Al Qaeda has suffered setbacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen but has also been expanding its activities in North and West Africa, Hague said.
"That is one reason why we are increasing our focus on security and diplomacy here in this region."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)