Thursday, October 20, 2005

Iran to Escape UN Referral Over Atomic Plans

Louis Charbonneau, Reuters:
The International Atomic Energy Agency is unlikely to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council when the U.N. agency's board meets next month despite fears Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons, diplomats said. READ MORE

The 35-nation governing board of the IAEA, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, declared last month that Iran had violated the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by hiding activities for 18 years that could be used to make atom bombs, paving the way for a Security Council referral and possible U.N. sanctions.

European and U.S. officials said at the time the IAEA board would refer Iran to the Security Council when it meets in November if Tehran continued to process uranium at a plant at Isfahan, which was mothballed until August under the Paris Agreement last year with France, Britain and Germany.

Tehran has so far refused to reinstate the suspension of sensitive nuclear work, which was the cornerstone of the Paris Agreement, but the European Union's three biggest powers have decided not to press for a Council referral at this time.

"The approach is not to refer Iran to the Security Council at the moment," an official from one of the so-called EU3 countries told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "The idea is not to provoke Iran."

A senior U.S. official, however, said Washington's position was officially unchanged. But he acknowledged that the new IAEA board, which diplomats say is less supportive of the Western drive to pressure Iran, was one of several complicating factors.

"We should try to get Iran reported to Security Council in November. But we'll have to see. There so many uncertainties now -- (including) a new board," the official said.

On the previous IAEA board, which changed last month, Iran had only one solid ally, Venezuela. On the new board, Tehran's camp may be bigger, since anti-Western Belarus and arch U.S. foes Cuba and Syria are now members of the IAEA's top body.

Iran, which Western countries suspect is developing atomic weapons under cover of a civilian programme, insists its programme is intended only for peaceful electricity generation.


One of the reasons for the decision to back off from a Security Council referral next month is that Tehran has improved cooperation since the IAEA passed its resolution.

After a recent trip to Tehran, the IAEA's chief safeguards inspector, Olli Heinonen, reported "his visit was positive and access was easier," a Western diplomat said. The Iranians handed over some long overdue documents and allowed the agency to interview an Iranian official, he added.

"At the moment we have the feeling that the report we will get (from the IAEA on Iran) in November will not be negative," the diplomat said, adding that the intense international pressure on Iran might be beginning to yield positive results.

An EU diplomat said Tehran appeared to be working hard to avoid a Council referral and warned that being too confrontational with Iran could be counterproductive.

"If it's significant cooperation, then I would imagine people would want to think very carefully about whether to do anything that would upset that cooperation," he said, adding that the threat of a Council referral was "driving them to recognise the need to be more cooperative."

But another Western diplomat warned Tehran that "selective cooperation is not enough". He said Iran need to fully cooperate with the IAEA and freeze all sensitive nuclear work.

Diplomats said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had learnt during her recent trip to Moscow that Russia would actively oppose any push to refer Iran's case to the Council.

Russia is building the $1 billion Bushehr nuclear power station in Iran and has long opposed any escalation of the stand-off over Tehran's nuclear programme.

Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, said he looked forward to resuming talks with the Europeans but gave no indication Tehran was ready to compromise.

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Paul Hughes in Tehran, Carol Giacomo in Washington, Y.P. Rajesh in New Delhi and Francois Murphy in Vienna)