Iran on IAEA Agenda, but Next Step Concerns U.S.
Wednesday, February 1, 2006
The governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency will meet in Vienna tomorrow to discuss whether to report the continuing impasse over Iran's nuclear ambitions to the U.N. Security Council. By coincidence, tomorrow is also Groundhog Day.
In the four years since President Bush first cited the dangers of Iran's nuclear program in his 2002 State of the Union speech by labeling it part of the "axis of evil," the administration has struggled to galvanize other nations to take action against the potential threat of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. For 2 1/2 years, the administration has pressed the IAEA to go to the Security Council.
Yet, at IAEA board meeting after board meeting, a decision to formally report the matter to the Security Council has been put off. Most recently, in September, the board said Iran violated its treaty obligations but delayed referral to the council. In November, another potential showdown was delayed.
In a compromise reached Monday night in London over a four-hour dinner, U.S. officials said, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her European counterparts struck a deal with Russia and China: Tomorrow, the 35-nation board should finally report the matter to the Security Council -- but any action should be deferred until after yet another board meeting in March. That would give the Iranians one last chance to end nuclear activities and come back to the negotiating table.
Indeed, there appears to be little agreement on what should happen once the Security Council is in a position to take action, as Rice acknowledged to reporters as she flew back to Washington yesterday.
"I don't underestimate the difficulty of maintaining consensus as we move through this process," Rice said. "What is very clear is that there is strategic consensus about the Iranian problem."
Already, there are signs the agreement is not as solid as portrayed by U.S. officials. Russian officials have angrily said an early-morning briefing by U.S. officials mischaracterized the understanding, a European diplomat said. He added that the Russian and Chinese diplomats in Vienna have balked at a proposed resolution that would send a letter immediately to the Security Council about the matter.
One senior administration official said yesterday that the United States will press for a graduated approach at the Security Council, beginning first with a statement of concern by the council. That could be followed by a series of resolutions, each putting a little more pressure on the government, such as demanding snap inspections. Only at the end of that process would sanctions be contemplated.
Several U.S. officials privately said they are pessimistic about the chances of success.
"Don't underestimate the total frustration across the U.S. government about giving Iran another chance," another senior official involved in the negotiations said. "We got promises from the Europeans that we'd go to the council in November and then nothing happened. Then they said if Iran broke seals on equipment we'd go to the council, and again nothing happened."
The official added: "In the meantime, Iran could pull another stunt -- a technical pause and promises of cooperation, and that will get them a favorable report and then we'll lose the momentum again."
Joseph Cirincione, head of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the London agreement is "a success for the patient diplomacy of the Bush administration."
"It is the best you could have hoped for under the circumstances," he said, in part because the United States "still has a credibility problem" stemming from the invasion of Iraq.
Iran has asserted that a referral to the Security Council would mean the end of diplomacy. But faced with mounting diplomatic pressure, Iran in the last week turned over documents IAEA inspectors had sought for years, including supporting documentation on a 1987 offer from the Khan network. Among the information in the papers is a 15-page document "related to the fabrication of nuclear weapon components," according to the IAEA report. Iranian officials told inspectors that the network provided the document as part of a package but that the Iranians did not make use of its contents.
Iran also provided inspectors with access to Lavizan, a facility partially razed two years ago, where inspectors suspect the Iranians may have conducted nuclear-related experiments. Equipment from the facility, which has been relocated, was inspected last month by IAEA officials who took environmental samples. But the Iranians blocked inspectors from interviewing an official involved in buying the equipment, apparently because he is a member of the Iranian military.
In Vienna, board members will consider a new assessment from the IAEA's investigation of Iran. The two-page report depicts a country that remains under suspicion and continues to conceal information from inspectors, and it says Iran is preparing to begin pilot-scale enrichment.