Saturday, March 11, 2006

U.S. Presses China and Russia for U.N. Council Action on Iran

Colum Lynch, The Washington Post:
The United States, France and Britain remained at odds with Russia and China on Friday over what role the Security Council should play in pressing Iran to abide by the United Nations' demand to cease the enrichment of uranium that could potentially be diverted to a nuclear weapons program.

The Bush administration, backed by France and Britain, pressed Moscow and Beijing at a meeting of the council's five veto-wielding members to support the swift adoption of a Security Council statement urging Iran to seek a negotiated settlement to an escalating nuclear crisis or face the possible threat of sanctions.

Britain and France, the chief drafters of the proposed statement, are hoping to present a text to the 15-nation Security Council as early as Monday, after a morning meeting of the council's permanent five members, according to a council diplomat who requested anonymity because the five permanent members have agreed to secrecy before they reach agreement. READ MORE

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed that a high-level international meeting be convened to forge a common approach to Iran, telling a Russian television interviewer that there was no agreement on the council's role in handling the nuclear crisis. He proposed a conference outside of the United Nations among the five veto-wielding nations and the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency. U.S. officials worry such an approach is intended to slow momentum that could lead to U.N. sanctions.

Friday's meeting marked a new and politically delicate phase in a 2 1/2 -year diplomatic confrontation between the major Western powers and Iran, which says it is pursuing a peaceful nuclear energy program. The United States says Iran's energy program is a cover for an atomic weapons effort.

The International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran has repeatedly concealed its nuclear activities, contributing to international suspicions it is pursuing a weapons program. But the agency's director general, Mohammed ElBaradei, maintains he does not have sufficient evidence to prove Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

On Friday, President Bush sought to maintain pressure on Iran, telling a gathering of the National Newspaper Association that Tehran represents a "grave national security concern" for the United States, and citing its nuclear ambitions and its threat to "destroy our ally Israel."

Although U.S. officials did not reject Lavrov's proposal, they said it was time for the Security Council to address Iran's nuclear activities. "From our perspective, right now where the diplomatic action is, is at the Security Council," said State Department acting spokesman Tom Casey. "We think that's where the focus ought to be."

Bush's closest ally, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, meanwhile, warned that Iran will face "a serious situation," an apparent reference to sanctions, if it continued to fail to meet its obligations.

But U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan urged caution, saying that "the best solution is a negotiated one." He said he will cut short an upcoming visit to Africa if "I am needed" to help defuse the crisis.

France and Britain on Wednesday distributed elements of a proposed Security Council statement on Iran. The paper, whose contents were first reported by the New York Times, highlights Iran's efforts to skirt its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and appeals to its leaders to comply with demands by the IAEA, a diplomat said.

The European paper calls on the IAEA's ElBaradei to report on Iran's activities within 14 days. The paper asserts that "Security Council action is necessary to reinforce IAEA authority . . . and to put Security Council weight behind the IAEA's resolutions." It also calls on "Iran to halt construction of heavy water reactors" that can be diverted to a nuclear weapons program, and to "implement and ratify the additional protocols."

Although the European paper does not explicitly threaten Iran with punitive measures, it says that "continued enrichment-related activity would add to the importance and urgency of further action by the Council." U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told a congressional committee on Wednesday that the United States would press for targeted sanctions against Iran if it failed to comply with the council's demand.

U.S. and European diplomats say that they are planning to seek the adoption of a Chapter 7 resolution, which can lead to the imposition of sanctions or even the use of military force, if Iran fails to cooperate with the IAEA. "The pattern of Iranian behavior suggests at least the desire to acquire weapons capability. We have no hard evidence, but deep suspicions remain," said a British official whose briefing was carried out on the grounds that he remain anonymous.

After Friday's meeting, China's U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, said the council's permanent members had "good talks," focusing on "ways of strengthening the hand of the IAEA" in its standoff with Iran. But Wang and Russia's U.N. ambassador, Andrei Denisov, declined to say whether they could support the European draft statement.