By John Ward Anderson and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 4, 2006 4:00 PM
VIENNA, Feb. 4 -- The United Nations nuclear agency reported Iran to the U.N. Security Council on Saturday, signaling growing worldwide unease about the nature and intent of Iran's nuclear program, and concern that it might be military.
Iran responded Saturday by announcing that it would resume "commercial-scale uranium enrichment" and halt snap checks of its nuclear facilities by U.N. inspectors.
The 27-3 decision to report Iran to the highest U.N. body -- a diplomatic victory for the United States and Europe, and a blow to Iran's prestige -- came after months of intense wrangling among the 35 board members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the organization that monitors nuclear activities around the world.
In Washington, Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns called the vote "a powerful message of condemnation" and a "clear rebuke" of Iran.
Russia and China, both of which have strong economic ties to Tehran, joined the United States and European countries in an increasingly unified campaign to step up pressure on Iran to stop its research into uranium enrichment and cooperate more fully with IAEA inspectors. Only Syria, Cuba and Venezuela voted against the measure. Five countries -- Algeria, Belarus, Indonesia, Libya and South Africa -- abstained.
The referral to the Council signifies "a continuing lack of confidence in Iran's nuclear intentions," said British Ambassador Peter Jenkins. "Board members simply cannot understand why Iran is so determined to press on with its [uranium] enrichment program."
"A very important part of this board meeting is the fact that the European Union, the United States, Russia and China stood together in sending this message," said U.S. Ambassador Greg Schulte. "The authorities in Tehran, rather than threatening the world, should listen to the world and take the steps necessary to start regaining its confidence."
In forwarding the matter to the Security Council, the board's resolution cited "Iran's many failures and breaches of its obligations to comply" with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the "absence of confidence that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes resulting from the history of concealment." It demanded that Iran "reestablish full and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and processing activities, including research and development."
Under an agreement reached Monday between the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, the council will not take any action on Iran for at least a month, giving Tehran a grace period to change its tactics, stop its enrichment activities and cooperate more fully with IAEA inspectors.
Javad Vaidi, deputy secretary of Iran's National Security Council, said the board's vote was "politically motivated" and "not based on any legal or technical grounds." He said Iran had no choice now but to resume uranium enrichment and stop voluntarily cooperating with international inspectors, under a law passed by Iran's parliament last year mandating such retaliation if Iran were reported to the U.N. Security Council.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad subsequently ordered Iran's Atomic Energy Organization to end snap inspections by IAEA officials starting Sunday.
"All of Iran's peaceful nuclear activities will continue within the framework of the IAEA and based on the NPT and the agency's safeguards," he said in a letter to the head of the Iranian organization, Reuters news agency reported. However, Ahmadinejad added, "from Feb. 5, Iran will suspend its voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol and its other cooperation beyond it." He referred to an agreement Iran signed in 2003 to allow snap inspections of its nuclear facilities after admitting it had carried out secret work for 18 years.
Vaidi told Iranian state television that the IAEA vote effectively killed a proposal for resolving the dispute by having Russia carry out uranium enrichment on Iran's behalf, and he said Iran would resume enrichment activities at its Natanz plant in Isfahan province.
"Commercial-scale uranium enrichment will be resumed in Natanz in accordance with the law passed by the parliament," Vaidi said, according to the Associated Press.
Burns, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, told reporters in a conference call Saturday that the Iranian government faces tough decisions in the coming month.
"I cannot say we are filled with hope the Iranians will do the right thing," he said.
Burns said that under an agreement reached in London this week with other permanent members of the Security Council, the United States will not press to bring up the Iranian issue this month, when the United States chairs the council. But he said five demands made of Iran in today's resolution -- including suspending enrichment activities and granting inspectors enhanced access to its facilities -- were the minimum needed to avoid a Security Council debate in March.
"Iran is going to have to meet those conditions and show it has taken a fundamentally different course," Burns said. "We are going to have to see a change of heart by Iran."
Noting Iran's threats to stop cooperating, British Ambassador Jenkins said, "We urge Iran to reconsider." In the month ahead, "we hope Iran will take this opportunity to begin rebuilding international confidence," he said.
The United States and Europe say Iran's ultimate aim is to build nuclear weapons; Iran says it is interested only in developing peaceful nuclear energy, framing the issue as a sovereign right.
Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and its chief nuclear negotiator, recently said that the country's decision in January to resume uranium enrichment activities after a voluntary, two-year suspension was "non-negotiable." It was that decision that triggered this week's IAEA's board meeting.
Going beyond the legislation to stop snap IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities, some Iranian officials have threatened to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty or raise oil prices if the IAEA forwarded their case to New York. Political analysts also warn of Iran's ability to foment problems in neighboring Iraq.
It is unclear what action, if any, the Security Council might take. Both Russia and China were reluctant to report Iran to the body and have expressed strong opposition to any significant punitive measures. China's ambassador to the United Nations told the Associated Press on Friday that his country would never support sanctions against Iran as a "matter of principle."
U.S. and European diplomats have said that they envision a "graduated" diplomatic approach to slowly build pressure on Iran, and that sanctions currently are not being considered. Nonetheless, Iran reportedly has been withdrawing money from European banks and stockpiling critical materials that could be difficult to get if an embargo or sanctions were imposed.
Anticipating the IAEA vote, Iranian President Ahmadinejad accused nuclear powers of trying to impose "scientific apartheid" and said they were ruining the reputation of the IAEA.
At a news conference Friday, the hard-line leader said a few nuclear powers were trying to "dictate their policies . . . from a domineering position, assuming that the Middle Ages' relations are still valid. But they had better wake up from that long sleep, because otherwise the severe blow of the world nations on their faces would wake them up."
In a direct appeal to non-aligned countries that account for 16 of the 35 seats on the board, Ahmadinejad said, "The hegemonic powers assume if they would manage to block Iran's path, they would also succeed in blocking the other nations' path."
Former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who heads Iran's powerful Guardian Council, delivered a separate warning during Friday prayers at Tehran University, the marquee podium for the conservative clerics who hold ultimate power in Iran.
"We have acquired some knowledge, and we intend to utilize it to improve our life and that of others," Rafsanjani said, emphasizing Iran's right to develop nuclear power to generate energy. "No matter where a progress in knowledge is achieved, it will benefit mankind. However, should they treat us in this manner, then the problems will take another shape."
Last year, Iran's conservative parliament passed a bill requiring the government to resume industrial-scale uranium enrichment if the IAEA pushed the issue to the Security Council. However, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, holds ultimate authority in Iran, and he has guided Iran's nuclear policy though the Supreme National Security Council, chaired by Larijani.
As signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has the right to develop nuclear technology and to enrich uranium, which can be used for the production of energy or, if highly enriched, to manufacture atomic bombs. But the country became enmeshed in controversy in 2002 after Iranian dissidents disclosed that the government had concealed its nuclear programs for almost two decades. Iran suspended the most controversial parts of its activities, and European diplomats agreed not to pursue Security Council action while they conducted intensive negotiations to ensure that Iran's program was and would remain strictly peaceful.
The negotiations floundered in August when Iran resumed uranium conversion, and again in January when it launched uranium enrichment activities, prompting the Europeans to declare their negotiations at an impasse and to begin a drive, which U.S. officials say was long overdue, to report Iran to the Security Council.
In recent months, international inspectors have found some documents in Iran that were related to bomb-making, but no evidence of a bomb-making program. They complain, however, that Iran has not provided the information or access to people, documents and facilities to make a solid determination one way or the other.
Recent provocative comments from Ahmadinejad -- including questioning the Holocaust, saying Israel should be "wiped off the map" and offering to transfer nuclear know-how to other Islamic countries -- increased concern about Iran's intentions and raised the pressure for the IAEA board to demand tougher confidence-building measures.
Several factors contributed to the IAEA board's lopsided vote, including the agreement earlier this week between the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China -- the five permanent members of the Security Council -- to give Iran a one-month grace period to adopt a more conciliatory approach.
The final resolution removed any reference to Iran's "non-compliance" with its nuclear treaty obligations and the article of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that it has violated. While that softened the resolution on its face, U.S. officials felt that it did not really matter because the document explicitly forwards a board resolution from last September that found Iran in violation of the NPT.
In an effort to win backing from 16 members of the Non-Aligned Movement, a group dating from the Cold War, the resolution included a paragraph "recognizing that a solution to the Iranian issue would contribute to global non-proliferation efforts and realizing the objective of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, including their means of delivery." The language significantly softened the movement's demand for a reference to creating a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, which the United States saw as a slap at Israel.
The resolution also is ambiguous about whether the IAEA board must act again after the one-month grace period in order to officially request Security Council action. The United States believes the resolution places the entire Iran issue on the council's table. But other countries -- including many from the Non-Aligned Movement -- hold the view that the resolution only informed the Security Council of the Iran problem, and that the IAEA board must vote again in another month if it wants the council to take action.
The confusion allowed everybody to interpret the issue as they saw fit for Saturday's vote, but creates a potential problem down the road.
Kessler reported from Washington. Correspondent Karl Vick contributed to this report from Istanbul.