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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 September 2005, 19:25 GMT 20:25 UK
Pressure begins to build on Iran
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Western opponents of Iran's nuclear programme have narrowly won a round in the long-running battle over whether Iran should be reported to the UN Security Council.

Iran's uranium conversion plant at Isfahan
Iran has resumed uranium conversion at its Isfahan plant

But the diplomacy is still clouded. The West did not score the outright win it had sought and Iran did not escape unscathed as it had hoped.

The scene is set for more months of wrangling and pressure with no clear end in sight.

It is by no means certain that Iran will face sanctions from what could be a divided Security Council.

The resolution adopted by the board of the UN's nuclear agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), found that Iran's "many failures and breaches" of its nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Safeguards Agreement constituted "non-compliance".

There was an "absence of confidence" about Iran's intentions and the matter fell "within the competence of the Security Council", it said.

This careful phrasing means that the way is clear for Iran to be taken to the Council, but only after another decision by the IAEA. That, though, is now not a matter of principle but of timing.

Vital vetoes

Iran did not come away empty-handed. It escaped being reported to the Council immediately.

And the IAEA Board did not manage to reach its always-sought-after consensus and had to hold a vote. This showed how divided the international reaction has been to Iran's nuclear activities.

The West, led by the US and three EU countries - Britain, France and Germany - are trying to get Iran not to develop a nuclear fuel cycle, while others are more sympathetic.

IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei at its headquarters in Vienna
The IAEA, headed by Mohammed ElBaradei, did not reach consensus

The most telling indicator that Western diplomacy had for once scored a win, at least on points, was that Russia and China abstained. India voted in favour of the move. Only Venezuela voted against.

However, the role of Russia and China will be vital on the Security Council itself. Both have interests in good relations with Iran - Russia is building a nuclear power station there and China imports Iranian oil.

And both have vetoes on the Security Council. So the pressure on Iran from the Council will be subject to their approval. And they have both opposed sanctions so far.

The basis for the referral to the council is that Iran was found to have breached its inspection agreement with the IAEA by hiding nuclear fuel research for nearly 20 years.

A report by the IAEA in November 2004 listed a number of breaches, including a failure to declare two fuel enrichment plants.

Under IAEA rules, a country has the right to make its own fuel - though many do not and import it from others - but it has to be under inspection.

Issue of trust

Subsequently Iran made moves to get into compliance and now argues that it wants to exercise its right to develop the whole fuel cycle. It says that it wants to diversify its energy sources and has no intention of building a bomb.

The West suspects that Iran is either intending one day to use this technology to make a nuclear device or wants to give itself the option of doing so.

The Western argument has been that Iran is not to be trusted and that it has lost the right to this technology because it broke the rules previously.

Until now, Iran, although caught out in its clandestine activities, has outmanoeuvred the West diplomatically, first by negotiating with the IAEA about putting things right and then negotiating inconclusively with the Europeans about whether it would give up its fuel programme altogether.

With those talks over, at least for the time being, and Iran already starting to or threatening to resume its enrichment research, the period of negotiations is beginning to turn into a period of confrontation.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


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