By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs Correspondent, BBC News website
The United Nations Security Council is to take up the issue of Iran's nuclear activities, heralding the start of a new phase in the confrontation.
Iran says its nuclear programme is purely peaceful
The move follows a report on Iran by the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which said that it could not "conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran".
It takes the crisis to an arena where Western powers are determined to put Iran in the dock, and where they will try to muster support for sanctions.
But sanctions are a long way off, and might not come at all.
Russia and China, which hold veto powers in the council, are reluctant to see sanctions applied.
So, a long period of warnings is likely to follow. These will demand that Iran comply with the requirements of the IAEA to suspend its fuel enrichment programme.
Even getting such warnings agreed will require close diplomatic co-operation between the US and its allies on the one side, and Russia and China on the other.
It could be a gruelling process.
The UN wants Iran to suspend its nuclear activities
Russia will play a key role, and US-Russian relations during this period will be important. Russia has acquired a powerful new position as it has already offered a compromise deal with Iran whereby it would process fuel on Iran's behalf. Although that has not led anywhere, Russian influence has been increased.
Iran argues that it has a right to develop a fuel cycle for civilian nuclear power and needs local production to ensure fuel supplies.
The West fears that the programme will be a cover for developing the technology needed for a nuclear bomb, and argues that Iran could be provided with fuel by others, as happens with many countries producing nuclear power.
Plan of action
The timetable is likely to be along the following lines:
- The Security Council begins discussions on the issue in the week beginning 12 March. The idea, a senior British offical said, was to exert pressure on Iran in an "incremental but reversible way."
- The council will issue a statement that Iran should comply with the demands already made by the IAEA. For the specific demands, see below
- There could be a deadline attached to the demand. The US is proposing a 30-day limit, but the IAEA could be asked to report back in two weeks.
- There could also be a further warning with threats of "consequences."
These "consequences" are sanctions by another name.
The US wants a so-called "Chapter VII" resolution which can be enforced.
At this stage, another British official said, there was no agreement in the council as to what they should be. He predicted they would be so-called "smart" sanctions (and he avoided the word "sanctions", using the term "measures" instead). These could include restrictions on the travel and financial dealings of individuals.
Another official however said that efforts would be made to delay or limit Iran's access to the high technology needed to make nuclear bombs and missiles.
The US also wants sanctions aimed at stopping Iranian nuclear and missile programmes.
This might be organised outside the UN on a "coalition of the willing" basis.
It is unlikely that general trade sanctions will be applied.
These might harm Russian and Chinese interests. Russia is currently building a nuclear power reactor for Iran and China has signed a long-term agreement to develop an oil field and buy oil from Iran.
The US has not ruled out using force against Iran
The US already bans most trade with Iran.
A major question is whether all the activity in the council will actually be effective.
Sanctions against individuals could be irrelevant, and Iran might simply be made more determined - it has already turned the issue into a patriotic one.
If the council is ineffective and Iran does carry on, then the question of a military strike, by the US or Israel, or both, will inevitably rise further up the agenda.
'Breaking the chain'
One of the Bush administration's hawks, the US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, has already spoken of hitting at the chain of Iran's nuclear production.
He told visiting British MPs recently that production could be stopped if one part of the chain was broken.
However, there is no agreed US policy at the moment, though Vice President Cheney said that Iran would face "meaningful consequences."
In turn, Iran is likely to step up its rhetoric, and at some stage it might even threaten to start withholding oil from the world market, though that is a double-edged weapon in that 80% of Iran's revenue comes from oil exports.
'Harm and pain'
The head of its IAEA delegation Javad Vaeidi said that the US had "the power to cause harm and pain" but was "susceptible to harm and pain." He stated: "If the United States wishes to choose that path, let the ball roll."
A British official said that Mr Vaeidi had made such threats before. They were "thinly veiled threats of violence" but were not specific.
The official said it was wrong to suggest that the Security Council track now inevitably led to another Iraq. However, he made clear the West's determination that Iraq should not acquire either nuclear weapons nor the technology to make them.
Iran, he said, could have that technology within a year and could build a bomb in about five years.
He added that the British hope was to prevent or delay for as long as possible the "McCain choice." Senator John McCain said recently: "There's only one thing worse than the United States exercising the military option, that is a nuclear-armed Iran."
These are the demands being made on Iran by the IAEA:
- It should again suspend all enrichment and reprocessing 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 co-operative in giving the IAEA access to people, places and documents.