UNITED NATIONS – Now that the U.N. atomic watchdog agency has agreed to report Iran to the Security Council, diplomats have vastly different notions about how the body should be involved in negotiations to make sure Iran is not trying to develop a nuclear weapon.
The five permanent council members are split, with the United States, Britain and France hoping to pressure Iran into backing down with the ultimate threat of sanctions.
However, China and Russia do not want to incite Tehran and would prefer that the council play a limited role. The Iranian allies want the International Atomic Energy Agency to keep the lead in handling Iran.
The Iranian government on Sunday ended all voluntary cooperation with the IAEA, saying it would start uranium enrichment and reject surprise inspections of its facilities. Uranium enriched to a low degree can be used for nuclear reactors, while highly enriched uranium is suitable for warheads.
However, in an apparent reversal, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said the government was open to negotiations on Moscow's proposal that Iran shift its plan for large-scale enrichment to Russian territory in an effort to allay suspicions. A day earlier, an Iran representative at the IAEA meeting said that proposal was "dead."
For the U.S.-led faction, the IAEA's decision Saturday to report Iran represented a great success. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton had pushed for Iran to be brought before the council since his days as U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security in 2001-2005.
"It inevitably changes the political dynamic when their nuclear weapons program has been considered in the Security Council, which is charged with the maintenance of international peace and security by the U.N. charter, rather than in a specific agency of the U.N. system," Bolton said Friday.
"The Iranians know full well what they're doing, which is trying to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, and I understand why they don't want people talking about it in the full light of day."
In recent days, the diplomatic debate at the United Nations on the issue has focused on two words -- "reporting" Iran to the council or "referring" it.
The distinction reflects a fundamental difference in view. The Russians and Chinese do not mind if the council is informed of the IAEA's dealings with Iran, but they do not want the IAEA to "refer" Iran to the council. That, they believe, would give the impression that the IAEA was washing its hands of Iran and asking the council to take the lead.
"We and China can accept informing of the Security Council, which is quite normal," Russia's U.N. Ambassador Andrey Denisov said. "That is the right of the Security Council to get any information it needs. But not referral, not official submitting, not handing it to the Security Council."
The debate is so important in part because the Security Council is unique among U.N. institutions as the lone body with the power to impose sanctions or other punitive measures, deploy peacekeeping missions, and grant or deny legitimacy to military action.
And though its resolutions sometimes go ignored or unheeded, there is also a symbolic shaming that goes along with bringing a country before a body whose mandate is to maintain international peace and security.
In Iran's case, the council's options include issuing a public statement without imposing any action or adopting a resolution demanding Iran stop its activities and threatening punishment if it does not. The punishment could include an oil embargo, asset freeze and travel ban.
Standing in the way of any such action is China, which has been blunt about its distaste for punitive measures.
"I think, as a matter of principle, China never supports sanctions as a way of exercising pressure because it is always the people that would be hurt," China's U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya said.
For at least a month, in the meantime, the council will not do anything publicly. According to the IAEA decision passed Saturday, the council must wait until the IAEA's Board of Governors meets again next month before considering what to do about Iran.
One precedent is North Korea, which wrangled with many of the same players in 1993 and 1994 over its nuclear program. Through early 1994, the United States pushed hard for the council to impose sanctions but ultimately agreed to drop the threat after North Korea agreed in separate negotiations to freeze its nuclear program.
While there had been months of behind-the-scenes debate in the council, its lone resolution came in May 1993, when it urged North Korea to reconsider its decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Colin Keating, an analyst who sat on the council at the time as New Zealand's ambassador, said diplomats hoped for a similar result with Iran, with most discussions about its program taking place outside the Security Council chamber.
"This is a process which everybody is focused on trying to get a particular outcome, and ultimately the passage of a resolution with sanctions is probably a failure of the exercise rather than a success," Keating said.
"This is going to be an ongoing process of many months and it's one in which there will be lots of swirling around and probably very few public meetings of the council and a lot of the action will take place off stage."