VIENNA, Austria – The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said he was hopeful Monday about reaching an international agreement to defuse concerns about Iran's nuclear activities and make U.N. Security Council action unnecessary.
The International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-member board was not likely to discuss the Iran issue until Tuesday or Wednesday. Whatever step the council might take would stop far short of sanctions, delegates said.
As the board meeting opened, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei suggested the council might not need to get involved.
"I am still very much hopeful that in the next week an agreement could be reached," ElBaradei said, alluding to talks between Moscow and Tehran aimed at moving Iran's enrichment program to Russia and possible further contacts between Iran and Europe.
Russia plans to ask the U.N. atomic watchdog agency to establish what level of small-scale uranium enrichment Iran should be allowed to conduct on its own soil as part of a plan aiming to minimize the chances of misuse for nuclear weapons, diplomats said.
The diplomats, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov plans to discuss the proposal with senior U.S. officials in Washington on Monday. They said, however, that the Americans were strongly opposed.
The diplomats, who demanded anonymity because the information was confidential, said the proposal was driving a wedge into what had been a relatively united front on enrichment, with Germany cautiously supportive, while France and Britain are opposed to the measure and are backing the U.S. position.
Germany, France and Britain broke off negotiations with Iran last year after it restarted activities linked to enrichment, which can make both nuclear fuel and the fissile core of warheads. Since then, the three European nations, along with the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan, have been at the forefront of efforts to have the U.N. Security Council take up the Iran issue.
The last IAEA board meeting sent the complete Iran file, resulting from nearly three years of its investigations, to the Security Council. This meeting is scheduled to pass the ElBaradei report on to the council, which then can decide what — if any — action it will take.
Diplomats told the AP that recent talks have touched on the possibility of allowing Tehran to run a scaled-down uranium enrichment program, despite its potential for misuse.
That point was significant because the Europeans and the United States have for years opposed allowing Iran any kind of enrichment capability — a stance that Russia, China and other influential nations have embraced.
Tehran has insisted on its right to conduct enrichment, saying it wants only to produce fuel for nuclear reactors that generate electricity. Enrichment also can create fissile material for warheads, and a growing number of nations share U.S. fears that is Iran's true goal.
Russia recently has sought to persuade Iran to move its enrichment program to Russian territory, which would allow closer international monitoring.
But U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton suggested Security Council action was necessary, saying there was an urgent need to confront Iran's "clear and unrelenting drive" for nuclear weapons.
Iran "must be made aware that if it continues down the path of international isolation, there will be tangible and painful consequences," Bolton told a conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Sunday.
Also Sunday, Iran's government warned that putting the issue before the Security Council would hurt efforts to resolve the dispute diplomatically.
"If Iran's nuclear dossier is referred to the U.N. Security Council, (large-scale) uranium enrichment will be resumed," top Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani said in Tehran. "If they want to use force, we will pursue our own path."
He said Iran had exhausted "all peaceful ways," and that if demands were made contrary to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the nation "will resist."
Larijani said Iran would not abandon nuclear research or back down from pursuing a program that Tehran insists is only for peaceful purposes.
IAEA delegates suggested the U.N. agency's board would not push for confrontation with Iran, and said any initial decisions by the Security Council based on this week's meeting would be mild.
The council's most likely action, they said, would be a statement urging Iran to increase cooperation with IAEA inspectors and to resume its freeze on enrichment.
Even such a mild step could be weeks down the road, but it would formally begin council involvement with Iran's nuclear file, starting a process that could culminate with political and economic sanctions.
Bolton said a failure to address Iran would damage the Security Council's credibility. "The longer we wait to confront the threat Iran poses, the harder and more intractable it will become to solve."
Russia and China, which can veto Security Council actions, have opposed sanctions against Iran, although they share the concerns of the U.S., France and Britain — the other permanent council members with veto power — that Iran could misuse enrichment for an arms program.
Although Russia and China, which both have economic and strategic ties with Tehran, voted with the majority of IAEA board members Feb. 4 to report the issue to the Security Council, they insisted the council do nothing until after this week's IAEA meeting.
Russia is unlikely to agree to strong action while it negotiates with Iran on the proposal to move Tehran's enrichment program to Russian territory.
Both Tehran and Moscow have said new talks are planned, although no dates have been announced. Iran rejected an EU proposal last year to end enrichment in return for the West providing reactor fuel and economic aid.
Past IAEA board meetings have ended with resolutions taking Iran to task for hindering investigations into a nuclear program that was kept secret for nearly 18 years and more recently urging it to reimpose a freeze on enrichment.