By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 22, 2006
PARIS, Jan. 21 -- The United States has been unable to win international support to officially report Iran to the U.N. Security Council, despite two years of diplomatic efforts and defiant new actions by the country to resume uranium enrichment research, according to European diplomats involved in negotiations.
With the International Atomic Energy Agency scheduled to discuss the crisis on Feb. 2, U.S. and European officials are considering delaying a direct confrontation with Iran in return for greater pressure from its allies to halt its enrichment research, the European diplomats said. Some forms of enriched uranium can be used to make nuclear weapons, though Iran maintains its research will be used only to produce electrical power.
Russia is concerned that a referral of Iran to the Security Council would result in international sanctions against one of its major trading partners. It has proposed a less formal approach that would allow the Security Council to discuss Iran's case and provide guidelines for compliance with international demands, the diplomats said. European diplomats discussed the negotiations on the condition they not be identified because of the sensitivity and volatility of the ongoing talks.
"The Russians say we have to take a very gradual, incremental approach," said a European diplomat close to the flurry of shuttle diplomacy this week between European capitals and some of Iran's closest allies, including Russia, China and India. "The objective is now to use the time until Feb. 2 to build a consensus. The wider the consensus, the stronger the message to Iran."
The Bush administration's primary goal is to report Iran to the Security Council, where the United States has more clout than it does inside the IAEA and where Iran can be threatened with sanctions. With stronger support from the Europeans in recent weeks, the White House appears closer to reaching the Security Council than at any time in the two years since it began the push.
Talks between Iran and the group known as the EU3 -- Britain, France and Germany -- broke down last fall, pushing the European countries closer to Washington's position.
Officials say the United States and the Europeans are already likely to win enough votes at the IAEA meeting to report Iran but would then face problems seeking Security Council action without the full support of Russia and China. As permanent members of the council, they have veto power over its decisions.
"We are ready to take action," said an EU3 official close to the negotiations. "At the same time, we have to get everybody on board. Clearly Russia and China are not yet on board for referral" to the Security Council.
"We want the IAEA board to remain united," the official said. "It has to be carefully choreographed."
While several European diplomats said it was possible that Russia and China could be persuaded to support a formal referral to the Security Council, they also said Europeans are increasingly inclined to accept a version of Russia's more flexible proposal.
"The name of the game is to try to line up the international community so the Iranians can't play one against the other," said Francois Heisbourg, who heads the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research.
Pursuing an informal path would give Iran more time to respond to questions from U.N. inspectors and to explore a possible deal in which it would enrich uranium in Russia rather than at home. If Iran provides the cooperation that inspectors say they need and holds off on any additional research until the IAEA meets again in March, it could greatly affect the council's response, according to Western diplomats familiar with the negotiations.
On the other hand, if the IAEA board reports Iran to the Security Council, Tehran has threatened to bar IAEA inspectors from its facilities. Some IAEA board members consider the threat so potentially serious threat that they support prolonging negotiations.
European diplomats say they would like the Security Council to issue a statement supporting the inspection process but keeping the case under IAEA authority if Iran cooperates. But if Iran cuts ties with the inspectors or begins assembling centrifuges at its uranium enrichment plant, the Europeans would ask the council to step in with tougher measures, such as considering a resolution to force cooperation.
European officials are being dispatched to the capitals of all key members of the 35-country IAEA board and are using previously scheduled meetings and bilateral visits to try to cement a consensus for pressure against Iran.
The United States is sending a large team to Vienna ahead of the Feb. 2 IAEA session to meet with diplomats and promote its case. While U.S. officials are saying publicly and privately that they have no intention of seeking immediate sanctions against Iran, they are not laying out their specific plan for action inside the Security Council.
"That has some countries worried," according to a Western diplomat, who said the Bush administration's strategy remained overshadowed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"The Iraq experience colors everything about Iran," said Mark Fitzgerald, a nonproliferation expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former U.S. State Department official. "Those who want to give Iran the benefit of the doubt use the Iraq experience as a reason for doing so: the misuse of intelligence, the mistakes in the intelligence and the way the war has progressed."
Iranian diplomats also have been lobbying in Vienna and in other capitals. Officials said the Iranians have been emphasizing that they have not resumed enrichment work since cutting seals on equipment this month. In private meetings, according to several diplomats, the Iranians are also emphasizing willingness to return to negotiations and increased interest in enriching their uranium in Russia. Those messages are influencing some of the IAEA board members, including several European countries that want to avoid escalating the crisis, diplomats said.
Staff writer Dafna Linzer in Vienna contributed to this report.