VIENNA, Austria – European nations on Wednesday focused on ways to heal a growing rift with the United States over how harshly to censure Iran for hiding parts of its nuclear program.
The United States had hoped that the 35-nation board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) would find Tehran in noncompliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (search) at its meeting, which opens Thursday.
But American officials were alarmed over a proposed EU-backed draft resolution that would urge Iran to continue cooperation with the agency but refrain from harshly condemning it for concealing elements of its nuclear program, diplomats said.
IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei (search) was also disappointed by the lack of stronger language in the European proposal, a diplomat close to the official said.
Twenty-five European nations met late into Wednesday night to find ways to compromise with the United States and its allies.
No more than three nations on the 35-member board — Canada, Australia and Japan — supported Washington's stance, diplomats said. Instead, the majority favored the proposed resolution authored by France, Germany and one of Washington's closest allies, Britain. Russia and China also supported the European version, the diplomats said.
The rough draft minimized nearly two decades of covert nuclear programs that the U.S. administration says point to an effort to develop atomic weapons. It focused instead on steps taken by Iran over the past few weeks to deflect international suspicions, including suspending uranium enrichment and agreeing to inspections on demand by IAEA inspectors.
A senior diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the main point of Wednesday night's discussion was "how to deal with Iran's past nuclear activities."
The participants discussed stronger language — either including past "noncompliance" of IAEA agreements on the part of Iran, or finding it in "breach of its obligations."
Both would be more acceptable to the United States, said the diplomat. He said the proposed language would likely be discussed by Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush as well as between U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer,
The three West European sponsors of the draft "want to see continued cooperation and transparency from Iran," said another senior Western diplomat.
He said the draft would make clear that the board would not accept "repetition of past mistakes, deceit or tricks," and would urge Iran to immediately open its nuclear programs to pervasive inspections even before the agreement is ratified.
It would also ask Iran to maintain its commitment to suspending uranium enrichment.
While the Americans have no dispute with those demands, they were dismayed that the initial proposed draft glossed over activities such as uranium enrichment and experimental plutonium processing that they say violate the Nonproliferation Treaty, the diplomats said.
In Brussels, Belgium, on Wednesday, Powell and European foreign ministers failed to agree on how to deal with Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran says is for generating electricity as its oil stocks decline.
Both sides do not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons, but the EU favors "constructive dialogue," said EU foreign policy representative Javier Solana.
IAEA director general ElBaradei also seeks a tougher stance. He took the Iranians to task for effective breaches of the Nonproliferation Treaty in a report that also, however, concluded that there was no proof Iran had a weapons agenda.
ElBaradei wants "a strongly worded report" that stops short of asking for Security Council involvement, a step that could lead to sanctions against Iran, one diplomat said.
The diplomats said the United States was ready to push for a meeting that ends without an Iran resolution rather than agree to something it considered spineless.
The West Europeans fear too much pressure would turn Iran from cooperation to confrontation and hope to help Iran with its peaceful nuclear programs. But several diplomats suggested the dispute also reflected West European independence similar to that shown by the French-German attempt to scuttle the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The Americans see the draft as "another (European) chance to stick your thumb in the eyes of the United States," said one.
Ahead of the meeting, an Iranian opposition group accused Tehran of continuing to deceive the IAEA. Firouz Mahvi of the National Council of Resistance of Iran told reporters in Vienna that a nuclear site toured by agency inspectors near Karaj was a decoy. IAEA officials said they could not immediately evaluate the claims and said the opposition group had a mixed record of accuracy.