The U.N. atomic watchdog agency met Monday to discuss a European draft resolution on Iran's (search) nuclear program, with the United States lobbying its allies to have Tehran hauled before the Security Council.
Iran's refusal to fully give up uranium enrichment, and banish suspicions it is interested in nuclear arms, had set the stage for a confrontation at the meeting, but Tehran appeared ready to compromise as the meeting opened.
Hossein Mousavian, Iran's chief delegate at the Vienna meeting, said that "at the moment" a partial freeze on assembling and making parts for centrifuges — a key part of the enrichment process — was in effect.
A senior diplomat familiar with the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) said the agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, was checking on the claim that Iran had reinstated such a partial freeze. IAEA officials declined comment.
The IAEA board of governors meeting also is expected to hear a report on South Korea's clandestine uranium enrichment and plutonium extraction experiments from agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei (search). The issue of Iran was not expected to be discussed before Tuesday at the earliest.
Washington appeared to soften its rhetoric before the opening session in apparent recognition that it might not get its way on Iran immediately. But its case was bolstered over the longer term after key European allies agreed to set a November deadline for Iran to meet demands meant to banish concerns over its possible pursuit of nuclear weapons.
In a confidential draft resolution prepared by France, Germany and Britain and made available to The Associated Press, the three European powers warned of possible "further steps" by November, the next time the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency convenes a meeting of its board of governors.
Diplomats defined that phrase as shorthand for referral of Iran's case to the U.N. Security Council if Tehran hinders the IAEA's nuclear investigation or refuses to suspend uranium enrichment — which can be used to generate power or make nuclear weapons.
ElBaradei suggested he did not consider November a deadline.
"It's an open process and we will finish when I believe we are finished," he told reporters.
The European warning did not go far enough for the United States.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity as the meeting opened, told the AP Washington was looking to more tightly define what would set off the "trigger" that would lead to Security Council referral.
He did not elaborate, but a diplomat familiar with the draft said the Americans were not happy with the word "probably" in the draft. As agreed on the weekend, the draft said the board will "probably" make a "definite determination on whether or not further steps are required."
Speaking in the Iranian capital Sunday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said his country would not abandon uranium enrichment. He repeated that Iran was willing to provide guarantees that it was not seeking nuclear arms, assurances that the United States and key allies have dismissed in the past as inadequate.
Mousavian, the chief Iranian delegate in Vienna, said any suspension "would not last forever."
Asked about Iran on Sunday, Undersecretary of State John Bolton, Washington's point-man on nuclear nonproliferation, said Security Council sanctions were "not inevitable," but suggested they were likely. He said President Bush is "determined to try to find a peaceful and diplomatic solution," but hinted that all options remain open.
"We're determined that they're not going to achieve a nuclear-weapons capability," said Bolton, describing the United States and Europe as close to agreement on what steps to take at the upcoming IAEA meeting.
With the Americans pressuring their European allies, the draft drawn up by France, Germany and Britain is likely to undergo changes before its initiators submit it to the board.
Still, the draft puts the three European countries the closest they have formally been to the United States' position on Iran.
While the last board meeting, in June, censured Iran for past cover-ups and warned Tehran it had little time left to disprove it has a nuclear weapons program, it didn't impose a deadline.
The draft suggests Iran has no wiggle room left in offering anything but full cooperation with the IAEA and its investigation. It also emphasizes the need for Iran to fully enact what has been a partial and eroding commitment to stop uranium enrichment.
Iran — which says it needs enrichment to make electricity — agreed last year to freeze enrichment programs only to resume testing, assembling and making centrifuges. Last week it confirmed an IAEA report that it planned to convert more than 40 tons of raw uranium into uranium hexafluoride, the feed stock for enrichment.