Diplomats Remain Split Over Iran Nuclear Question

The contentious Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, which is being built by Russia, as seen by satellite.

Publish date: April 20, 2006

Written by: Charles Digges

Senior diplomats from the UN Security Council's five permanent members ended two days of talks about Iran's nuclear programme Wednesday in Moscow with consensus for action against the Islamic state, but they continued to be divided as to what form it should take, US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said.

"Nearly every country is considering some form of sanctions, and this is a new development," Burns told reporters after the meeting. "Every country said that some type of action had to be taken to, in effect, erect a barrier to Iran’s progress. So the challenge for us will be what can we all agree on."

Iran to enrich its own uranium
Iran annonced last week it could enrich its own uranium, sending shivers down the spines of western nations and Israel, even though experts agree the Islamic Republic is far from creating an atomic bomb. It currently possesses a cascade of 164 centrifuges at Natanz, and will require at least 10 times that to achieve enough bomb grade uranium-235 to make a proper device, say experts.

Likewise, the enrichment of the batch of uranium that Iran trotted out to great fanfare was only 3.5 percent.

Nevertheless, for weeks, the United States, Britain and France have been pressing for tough steps against Iran, while Russia and China have argued that a hard line might backfire. All have expressed public concern over Iran’s programme. Mohammad Elbaradei, director of the United Nations (UN) nuclear watch-dog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, is due to visit Iran Friday.

"All participants in the meeting agreed that urgent and constructive steps are demanded of Iran," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday, according to Russian news agencies.

bodytextimage_iranian-presidentIN.jpg Photo: AFP

Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said last week that Iran was pursuing the enrichment of uranium on an industrial scale, which could allow it to accelerate the development of nuclear weapons.

That and recent statements by other Iranian officials that they would expand their experimental nuclear work has led to "a greater sense of urgency" among the major powers about Iran’s ambitions, Burns told reporters.

"What I heard in the room last night was not agreement on the specifics but to the general notion that Iran has to feel isolation and that there is a cost to what they are doing."

In late March, the UN Security Council gave Iran a month to stop enrichment and answer questions from the IAEA. Iran says that its programme is peaceful and only for the generation of energy.

The United States has asked the Security Council to invoke Chapter 7 of the UN charter, which allows the world body to decide on measures, including the use of force, "to maintain or restore international peace and security."

Russia spoke against the use of Chapter 7 at the meetings, fearing it would almost certainly lead to military action, according to a diplomatic source familiar with the discussions who spoke on traditional conditions of anonymity.

Talk of air strikes
Indeed, hawkish talk in Washington, DC has suggested that air strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations are possible. This talk was brought to light in last week’s issue of the “New Yorker" magazine in which investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported that the Pentagon is looking at a variety of strike plans.

President George Bush immediately dismissed the article as “wild speculation.” But when questioned again on Monday about a military option to de-fuse the crisis, Bush said "all options are on the table,” US media reported.

Ahmadinejad retorted that Iran was training suicide bombers that would hit targets inside America if any military action was taken against its nuclear programme.

The diplomatic source also said that Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, who attended the session, was critical of Iran and had delivered a "tough message" privately to the Iranians during a stopover in Tehran before the Moscow meeting.

Russia said it would be willing to discuss other punitive options after the IAEA issues a report on Iran’s response to the Security Council statement, the diplomatic source said.

"We are convinced of the need to wait for the IAEA report due at the end of the month," Lavrov told reporters.

Russia as apologist
Despite the ever more strident behaviour of Iran regarding its nuclear programme, Moscow—though privately concerned—has remained one of Tehran’s most consistent apologists, insisting until recently that the nuclear programme is peaceful. Since the mid-1990s, Russia has been building a light water reactor in the Iran port of Bushehr, to the consternation of the West.

Russia has also been engaged in preliminary talks with Iran to build five more reactors there. And Russia has other trade interests with Iran—namely in arms, and Moscow sold a batch of missiles to Tehran last December.

Yet Russia has denied repeatedly that it has had anything to do with the building of Russia’s centrifuges and one Rosatom official called the notion “ludicrous,” in an interview Wednesday with Bellona Web.

“We are trying to help resolve this crisis, not make it worse,” he said.

In fact, most western officials suspect that the centrifuge programme was built with the help of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the renegade Pakistani nuclear engineer.

Options on the table
The diplomats discussed the pros and cons of a number of options in detail, Burns said. The UN, for instance, could decide to impose sanctions without invoking Chapter 7, and individual countries could also impose sanctions. The United States has had sanctions against Iran for more than 25 years.

Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said last week that the EU was considering targeted sanctions, but he added that "any military action is absolutely off the table for us."

An Iranian delegation arrived in Moscow on Wednesday for talks with Russian officials and, separately, with diplomats from Britain, France and Germany.