Published January 17, 2006
MOSCOW – Pressure on Iran intensified Tuesday, with key European countries and the United States moving ahead with plans to refer Tehran to the U.N. Security Council and Israel vowing not to let the Iranians develop nuclear weapons.
But Russia and China — Iran's past backers — urged negotiations instead of confrontation, casting doubt on whether next month's International Atomic Energy Agency meeting will demonstrate a unified political will.
A meeting Monday in London produced no agreement among the United States, France, Britain and Germany and Moscow and Beijing on whether to refer the dispute over Iranian nuclear enrichment to the Security Council, which could impose sanctions.
Past opposition to such action by Russia and China led the Europeans and the United States to postpone referral.
Russia and China have joined Europe and the U.S. in criticizing Iran's resumption of uranium enrichment. But both would prefer to avoid Security Council involvement and are outright opposed to sanctions.
A draft text by Britain proposing referral when the IAEA's 35-nation board of directors meets Feb. 2 reflected deference to the Russians and Chinese, stopping short of calls for punitive measures.
Instead, the text, read in part to The Associated Press by a European diplomat accredited to the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, urges the 15-nation council to press Tehran "to extend full and prompt cooperation to the agency" in its investigation of suspect nuclear activities.
It also asks the council to make clear "that additional transparency measures are indispensable" if Iran hopes to prove it does not want to make nuclear weapons.
The diplomat agreed to share the confidential information only on condition of anonymity.
The wording of the text is sure to change ahead of the IAEA meeting. Still, the fact that it was calling on the council to send Iran's nuclear file back to the IAEA provided the latest indication the country could escape sanctions.
U.S. State Department spokesman Seam McCormack suggested Washington would push to have Iran hauled before the Security Council no matter what the Russians and Chinese thought.
"We have the votes for a referral to the Security Council, and we believe that that is the action the IAEA is going to take when they meet in February," he said. "Whether or not the Russians vote with the rest of the world is up to them."
John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, stressed that under the U.N. Charter, the Security Council has the responsibility to deal with threats to peace and security, and he said the Iranian nuclear dispute is a test of the charter,
"The issue of Iran's nuclear weapons program is a classic threat to international peace and security, which is why we've felt for some time that the matter should be on the Security Council's agenda," he told reporters at the United Nations.
"It's been the view of the United States for four years that this matter should be referred to the Security Council," he said.
Moscow supports calling on Iran to renew a moratorium on uranium enrichment, a possible pathway to nuclear arms. But asked Tuesday whether Russia would be ready to refer Iran to the Security Council for violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said other means should be considered first.
"I don't think that the potential of the IAEA's Governing Board has been exhausted and the European troika has the same opinion," he said, alluding to France, Britain and Germany, which represent the European Union in talks on the issue.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry took a cautious tone, saying "all relevant sides should remain restrained and stick to solving the Iranian nuclear issue through negotiations."
Israel — whose right to exist has been denied by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — took a tough stance.
In response to a question about Iran, acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said "under no circumstances can Israel allow someone with hostile intentions against us to have control over weapons of mass destruction that can endanger our existence."
Israel has refused to categorically rule out military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. But officials say that's not in the cards anytime soon, and Olmert said Tuesday any Israeli action would be in cooperation with the international community.
Raising hopes for a compromise, Iran on Monday praised a proposal by Russian President Vladimir Putin to conduct Iranian uranium enrichment in Russia, which would allow for greater international oversight.
And Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on Tuesday again invited Europeans to the negotiation table to avoid a major international crisis, state-run television reported.
But British officials questioned Tehran's sincerity and said Tuesday that London maintained its stance on the need for Security Council action.
Russia and China are IAEA board opinion leaders whose voice counts with other nations. They also are veto-wielding members of the Security Council that could block harsh action against Tehran — including economic sanctions, an option backed by the Bush administration.
European nations have been willing to wait on referral in hopes Tehran's defiance would sway Moscow and Beijing.
The United States is the key backer of Security Council sanctions, but has thrown its weight behind the Europeans in hopes that time would work on its behalf in hardening anti-Iran sentiment.
In a Jan. 12 letter to other board nation members that was made available to the AP, Washington's chief delegate to the IAEA, Gregory L. Schulte, urged them "to vote affirmatively to report Iran to the United Nations Security Council."
The letter was part of a dossier being circulated by the Americans to support their argument that Iran's main interest is to develop weapons, a diplomat said.
But the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the Arab world's two major powers, urged Vice President Dick Cheney on a trip to the region Tuesday to give negotiations with Iran more time.
Iran's case also has been hurt by comments by IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei, who says he is losing patience with Iran for blocking requests for documents, interviews and access to sites to test Iranian claims its nuclear program is peaceful.
Robert Joseph, U.S. undersecretary for arms control and international security, was in Vienna and planned to meet with ElBaradei before heading to Moscow and Tokyo.
The path for referral was laid by an IAEA resolution finding Iran in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty for clandestine nuclear activity.
That resolution implied Tehran's defiance of calls to freeze enrichment would be the "trigger" for Security Council involvement, a condition met Jan. 10 when Iran removed U.N. seals from its main uranium enrichment facility and resumed research on nuclear fuel — including small-scale enrichment.