VIENNA, Austria – A top Iranian official handed over information on his country's nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency Thursday in a last-minute move to temper the critical tone of a report to be sent Friday to the U.N. Security Council.
Diplomats, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss confidential details of the IAEA's Iran probe, said they had no details of what Iran's deputy nuclear chief, Mohammad Saeedi, had brought to the table.
Still they characterized the meeting between Saeedi and Olli Heinonen, the IAEA's deputy director general in charge of Iran's nuclear file, as unlikely to blunt the report's main finding — that Tehran has ignored council requests to suspend uranium enrichment.
A day before the report's release, deep differences over Iran persisted within the Security Council, where Russia and China are blocking U.S.-led attempts to move from asking Iran to comply to demanding it do so.
Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted the IAEA — the U.N. nuclear watchdog — should continue to play a central role in the Iranian nuclear dispute. "It mustn't shrug this role from its shoulders and pass it on to the U.N. Security Council," Putin said after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Siberian city of Tomsk.
But a top French diplomat laid out a starkly contrasting position reflecting U.S. and British views — that the Security Council should not only have primacy in dealing with Iran, but it should also start considering how to up the pressure.
France wants any U.N. resolution on Iran's nuclear program to come under a provision allowing for sanctions or possibly military force, said the diplomat, also asking for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Such a resolution would not "automatically" mean resorting to military action, the diplomat said. "We are not yet at that stage," he said.
The Security Council adopted a statement a month ago that gave Iran until Friday to suspend all activities linked to enrichment because it can be used to make the highly enriched uranium used in the core of nuclear warheads.
Instead of complying, Iran — which says it seeks the technology only to generate power — has upped the ante in the past weeks, announcing that it had for the first time successfully enriched uranium and that it was conducting research on advanced centrifuges that would allow it to produce more of the material in less time.
On Wednesday, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, Saeedi's superior and head of Iran's nuclear program, met with IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei and Heinonen. But a senior diplomat accredited to the agency said Thursday that Aghazadeh had "made no new overtures" regarding suspending enrichment, the key Security Council request.
They said the report would also likely be critical of Iran for defying a council request to provide information meant to address suspicions that it might be seeking to make nuclear weapons.
Other diplomats and European officials told the AP that the United States — the chief backer of tough measures meant to gain Iranian concessions on its nuclear program — had already asked for an informal Security Council meeting for next Wednesday to discuss the report and how to respond to it.
Before Friday's report, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested that Washington expected ElBaradei to offer a negative assessment of Iran's compliance with the Security Council requests. And she said the credibility of the council was at stake.
"In order to be credible, the Security Council of course has to act," Rice told reporters at a NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria. "The Security Council is the primary and most important institution for the maintenance of peace and stability and security, and it cannot have its will and its word simply ignored by a member state."
She said it was "pretty clear" that Iran would not meet the requirements of suspension and other points set out by March Security Council statement.
Iran offered no hints of conciliation on the eve of the report, with its hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, vowing that "no one" could make his country give up its nuclear technology.
Western concern has built since 2002, when Iran was found to be working on large-scale plans to enrich uranium, which can be used both to generate fuel or make the fissile core of nuclear weapons. Iran insists it is only interested in power, but the international increasingly fears ulterior motives.
While the IAEA has found no "smoking gun" proving Iran wants nuclear arms, a series of IAEA reports since have revealed worrying clandestine activities — such as plutonium processing — and documents, including drawings of how to mold weapons-grade uranium metal into the shape of a warhead.
Inconsistencies in Iran's enrichment activities deepened worries, and Iran's decision to end a freeze of enrichment in February led the IAEA board to report Tehran to the Security Council for noncompliance. The council then gave Iran until Friday to suspend enrichment.
Iran heightened international concerns by announcing April 11 that it had enriched uranium with 164 centrifuges. It has informed the IAEA that it plans to install 3,000 centrifuges in the last quarter of 2006 and later 54,000 centrifuges for large-scale enrichment of uranium.
While tens of thousands of centrifuges need to be running in "cascades" for a full-fledged enrichment programs, experts estimate that Iran could produce enough nuclear material for one bomb if it had at 1,000 centrifuges working for over a year.