U.S. pushes for tougher stance against Iran's nuclear program

Atomic agency's referral to U.N. council could bring sanctions against Tehran

September 11, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The United States entered a weekend of high-stakes diplomacy yesterday in a bid to get Iran's nuclear program placed before the United Nations Security Council, which could then consider imposing sanctions against Tehran.

With Iran still refusing to abandon activities that could lead to the production of bomb-grade nuclear fuel, the United States wants the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, meeting in Vienna next week, to go beyond its recent practice of issuing warnings to Iran and instead refer Tehran's nuclear program to the Security Council.

During meetings in Vienna yesterday, Europeans were described by diplomats as moving closer to the American position, although they remained inclined to issue a final warning to Iran, diplomats said. Russia, which has contracts to help Iran develop civilian nuclear power plants, remained opposed to having the issue put before the United Nations.

Failure to sway the IAEA board would be a diplomatic setback for the Bush administration, which has campaigned hard to persuade other countries of the threat that Iran's nuclear program poses to efforts to prevent the spread of the world's most destructive weapons.

Failure could also boost American analysts outside the administration who have argued that the United States should open a dialogue with Tehran and end 25 years of frozen relations. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry has said that, if elected, he will begin such contacts.

If the Security Council takes up Iran's nuclear program, administration strategy calls for the United States to put off seeking sanctions against Iran and instead attempt to win support for a consensus statement demanding that Iran cooperate with international inspections, one U.S. official said.

Such a tactic would avoid a likely veto of sanctions by either Russia or China, while making other nations reluctant to sell Iran material that could be used for its nuclear program. The United States would also seek to ratchet up the pressure on Iran with a series of deadlines and benchmarks for cooperation, the official said.

Negotiations in Vienna were being led by the State Department's top arms-control official, John Bolton, who met yesterday with other senior officials of the Group of Eight major industrialized countries and pressed them to accept a U.S.-drafted resolution on Iran. Talks were expected to continue by phone through the weekend, even while Bolton made a previously scheduled trip to Israel, where Iran is likely to be discussed.

A nuclear-armed Iran is viewed as a mortal threat by Israel, America's closest ally in the Middle East. Israel set back Iraq's nuclear program in 1981 by bombing an Iraqi nuclear reactor, but says it wants Iran's program curbed through an international diplomatic effort. Israel argues that an Iranian nuclear program also threatens Europe.

Bolton said there was no disagreement among the G-8 nations on the overall objective of making sure that Iran does not gain the capability to produce nuclear weapons.

A senior U.S. official, describing what he called "difficult negotiations," nevertheless said both Britain and Germany were showing "surprising sympathy" for U.S. views. Until yesterday, Germany had been the most reluctant among the major European countries to join in a tough stance against Iran, he said.

Britain, France and Germany won a promise from Iran last year to allow intrusive inspections by the IAEA and to halt enrichment of uranium, a key step toward a nuclear weapon. In exchange, the Europeans pledged to help Iran develop a nuclear energy program.

This year, however, Iran said it would resume key aspects of its enrichment process, flouting its promise. A recent confidential report by the IAEA's director general, Mohammed ElBaradei, shows that Iran's cooperation with inspectors has been patchy. Iran has insisted that it is developing its nuclear program solely as a source of energy.

But European impatience with Iran is growing.

"There is very little doubt that the Iranians are approaching the point where, if they don't comply, then they will end up being referred to the Security Council," a European diplomat said yesterday, adding that this message has been "spelled out very bluntly" to Tehran.

The diplomat said Europeans are anxious to maintain an international consensus, and said the most likely outcome would be to warn Iran that it is "very close" to seeing the issue sent to the United Nations.

The senior U.S. official, asked if failure to win agreement in Vienna would be a blow to the United States, said it would be more of a blow to the international nuclear nonproliferation treaty: "If members of the IAEA do not defend the NPT, the NPT is in trouble."

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