The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, is set to report Iran to the UN Security Council on Friday amid frantic efforts to keep hope alive of a diplomatic solution to the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Meeting in Vienna on Thursday, a majority of the IAEA’s 35-nation board indicated it favoured a European resolution that would take Tehran to the Security Council, although Cuba and Syria said they would vote against.
Iran has said it would suspend all voluntary co-operation with the IAEA if it was reported to the Security Council. On Thursday, Ali-Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, warned the board against taking the “confrontation route” and making “a historic mistake”.
In Tehran, a regime insider said the leadership was braced for referral and even sanctions. “It seems escalation will go on until Iran finds the price too high, but we won’t back down easily,” he said. “Of course, Iran would be concerned by the prospect of either oil sanctions or war. But is the west ready for either?”
On a provincial tour to Kangan in southern Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadi-
Nejad said the western countries were like “elderly lions whose mane and fur are worn out, and who can only roar [without biting]”.
The IAEA meeting, which also saw members of the non-aligned group of nations express reluctance about reporting Iran to New York, will resume today.
While Iran insists its intentions are purely peaceful, the US and the European Union have been alarmed by documents that appear to link its nuclear programme to possible military uses and want to prevent Tehran from carrying out nuclear enrichment – the process that can produce weapons grade material.
“We are reaching a critical phase but it is not a crisis,” said Mohamed ElBaradei, IAEA director-general. “It’s about confidence building but it is no way an imminent threat.”
An end to Iran’s voluntary co-operation with the IAEA would greatly hinder the agency’s attempts to detect clandestine nuclear activities – and therefore prevent it from certifying whether or not Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. But the agency would still be able to monitor nuclear processing at known sites, an important step in ensuring that material is not diverted for weapons use.
On Thursday diplomats said that even in such circumstances it would be important to keep pursuing attempts to find a compromise.
“There’s still time for Iran to act constructively,” said Grigory Berdennikov, the Russian ambassador to the IAEA. This week Russia and China agreed to back the US-EU initiative, but in-sisted on delaying substantive discussion of the file in New York until next month. The extra time is intended to allow Mr ElBaradei to provide an assessment of Iran’s co-operation with the IAEA, and also to allow Russia and Iran to continue talks. Iran is thought to have indicated that if Russia votes to report it, it will not pursue further negotiations with Moscow.
Mr Berdennikov indicated his country’s negotiations with Iran could still continue even if Tehran ended its voluntary co-operation with the IAEA.
The resolution being debated calls for Iran to reinstate its suspension of uranium enrichment and step up co-operation with the IAEA. It also requests Mr ElBaradei to “report to the Security Council ... that these steps are required of Iran by the board and to report to the Security Council all IAEA reports and resolutions relating to this issue”.
In Washington, Stephen Rademaker, assistant secretary for security and non-proliferation, said that once Iran’s file reached the UN Security Council, the US would seek measures to enhance the legal authority of the IAEA to carry out its inspections. He noted that the agency had access problems in Iran.
Additional reporting by Gareth Smyth in Tehran and Guy Dinmore in Washington