By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs Correspondent, BBC News website
Barring a last-minute surprise, the final hurdle before the United Nations Security Council takes up the issue of Iran's nuclear activities is likely to be removed this week.
UN inspectors say they cannot rule out covert Iranian nuclear work
The council is expected to start discussing Iran later this month and the confrontation with Iran will therefore move to a higher level.
However, sanctions are still a long way off and might never come. Warnings and demands that Iran suspend its nuclear programme will, in any case, come first.
The prospect is for a long drawn-out series of manoeuvres and it remains to be seen if enough pressure can be brought to bear on Iran to get it to change its policy.
Iran argues that it is allowed to develop its own fuel enrichment cycle for civil nuclear power under the rules of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The West fears that this expertise will be eventually used to build nuclear weapons.
This is the likely timetable:
- The 35-member board of the UN's nuclear agency the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) begins a meeting on Monday
- The Iran business will probably be reached on Tuesday or Wednesday
- The board - made up of the leading nuclear powers plus a geographical spread of other nations - will discuss a report on Iran by the IAEA's Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei.
Starting the escalator
This report has already been leaked and it does not give Iran a clean bill of health. The board therefore is not expected to reverse a decision it took on 4 February to report Iran to the Security Council. It probably will not even pass a new resolution.
As part of the delicate negotiations required to get Russia and China on board for taking the issue to the council in February, Western countries agreed that, while the papers in the case would go to the council at once, any action there would wait until after the latest report on Iran at this IAEA meeting.
Once the board meeting is out of the way, the Security Council will then take up the dossier.
A senior British official predicted that this would happen this month. "We see a graduated response, an escalator," he said. "We are not going to jump at it and say 'Here are sanctions'."
The official predicted a three-stage approach. The council would first issue a demand that Iran comply with the demands of the IAEA board for a suspension of its activities. This could be under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows the UN to enforce its demands. The United States is reported to be asking for a 30-day deadline.
If that is ignored, there could be a stronger warning, maybe with the threat of measures against Iran, though that would be difficult to get past Russia and China.
The third stage would be for those measures to be implemented.
The British official said that, in any case, again because of opposition from Russia and China, these measures were unlikely to be trade sanctions (and the use of the word "measures" rather than "sanctions" is probably deliberate).
They would, instead, be so-called smart sanctions aimed at individual Iranians - restricting their travel and financial activities, for example, though how effective that would be must be doubtful.
Of course, if threats and even sanctions by the UN are not enough, there always remains the possibility of military action by the United States and/or Israel. But there is a good deal of diplomacy to be played out before that becomes a real prospect.
Hawks in the Bush administration are showing some frustration with this diplomatic approach. The US UN Ambassador John Bolton said that Washington would use "all tools at our disposal" to stop Iran. "The longer we wait to confront the threat Iran poses, the harder and more intractable it will become to solve," he told Aipac, a pro-Israel group in Washington.
British MP's who met Mr Bolton recently quoted him as saying that the US could "hit different points along the line. You only have to take out one part of the nuclear operation to take the whole thing down."
Iran refused to budge at a meeting with Britain, France and Germany - the EU3 - on Friday. A European official who attended the meeting said that chief Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani "simply did not have a huge amount to say, so we broke up with no conclusion and no agreement."
These are the demands being made on Iran by the IAEA in the February resolution:
- It should again suspend all enrichment and repossessing activities
- It should reconsider the construction of a heavy water reactor [this would give it access to plutonium, another route to a nuclear bomb]
- It should ratify and implement the "Additional Protocol", which means stricter inspections, already agreed with the IAEA
- It should in the meantime act in accordance with that Additional Protocol
- It should be more cooperative in giving the IAEA access to people, places and documents.
The ElBaradei report to be put before the board this week said that from 6 February Iran had refused to accept the stricter inspections under the Additional Protocol (falling back on the regular inspection regime) and had subsequently started fuel enrichment tests.
The report was not wholly unfavourable to Iran and it said that Iran had taken corrective actions since its secret enrichment programme had been discovered.
However, it summed up: "The agency is not at this point in time in a position to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran."