Russia and China have rejected proposals from the United States and other veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council for a statement demanding that Iran clear up suspicions about its nuclear program, diplomats said Monday.
The dispute raises the threat of an impasse in the Security Council and means that the U.S., Britain and France may not get their wish for strong action by the powerful U.N. body. They believe such a text could further isolate Iran and help compel it to abandon uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for a civilian nuclear reactor or fissile material for an atomic bomb.
But British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Monday that Britain also wants the Security Council to go one step at a time, leaving the door open to restart negotiations with Tehran if it reverses course and expresses a willingness to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
"If the Iranian regime chooses not to heed the concerns of the international community, it's going to damage the interests of the Iranian people," he said, speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.
Iran, meanwhile, sent more mixed signals about its intentions. Its president said Iran's very existence depended on nuclear development, but Russia reported that Iranian diplomats had asked for more consultations.
Only a day earlier, talks on Russia's Western-backed offer to host Iran's uranium enrichment program collapsed when Tehran rejected Moscow's demand to suspend enrichment activities at home.
"Contradictory signals are coming from Tehran," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters Monday of Iran's response to the proposal. "One day they reject it, the other day they don't."
The board of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, voted last month to report Iran to the Security Council, saying it lacked confidence in Tehran's nuclear intentions and accusing Iran of violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran responded by ending voluntary cooperation with the IAEA and announcing it would start uranium enrichment and bar surprise inspections of its facilities.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei accused Iran of withholding information about its nuclear program, possessing plans linked to nuclear weapons, and refusing to freeze uranium enrichment.
In the last week, council diplomats have weighed how to respond. Ambassadors from the five veto-wielding nations all said publicly that discussions continued on several proposals, including one from the British and French that would urge Iran to stop enriching uranium.
But a U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the discussions, said Russia and China want the council to do one thing only: acknowledge the primary role of the IAEA in handling the Iran issue.
The diplomat said that after three meetings, the Russians and Chinese showed little indication they would change their positions.
At the heart of the dispute is a difference in approach toward Iran, which insists its nuclear program is meant only for peaceful purposes such as energy.
Russia and China, allies of Iran, believe council action — such as a challenging statement or economic sanctions — risks angering Tehran further, possibly causing the regime to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and kick out IAEA inspectors.
"I think that we want a constructive statement," China's Ambassador Wang Guangya told The Associated Press on Monday morning. "I think they want to be too tough."
Britain also wants Israel to rid itself of nuclear weapons, but it is far more urgent that Iran shut down its enrichment activities since it poses the greater threat, Straw said in London.
"If you want a nuclear-free Middle East, the next stop is Iran," he said. "Nothing would set back the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East and a non-nuclear Israel further than if Iran were to flout its international commitments and acquire a nuclear weapons capability."
In Iran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi indicated that his government would wait for the outcome of the Security Council meeting to decide whether to start enrichment on the scale required to provide fuel for its first nuclear reactor at Bushehr, to go online later this year.
"It shouldn't come as any surprise to anybody that the Iranians would love to talk further," U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said. "They've loved talking for the last four years and they'll talk for as long as they can as they master the technical difficulties they've encountered in the uranium enrichment process."
Finance Minister Davood Danesh-Jafari told reporters Monday that Iran could survive any U.N. penalties.
"If sanctions are imposed, we are capable of managing the country according to our past experiences. We could run the country with no dollars in oil revenue as we did in the 1990s."
The United States and its allies could opt to bypass the Security Council entirely in confronting Iran. Last week, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said a coalition of countries supporting tough action might consider targeted sanctions if the council was not firm enough.