(CNSNews.com) - Iran is seeking support in its effort to avoid being referred to the U.N. Security Council, after the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog criticized Tehran's refusal to cease nuclear fuel activities.
So far, Iran has secured crucial backing from two permanent members of the council, Russia and China, while other countries represented on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board in Vienna have also voiced support.
Referral to the council -- a step that could lead to sanctions -- would require a majority vote by the IAEA board's 35 members, who are due to meet in the Austrian capital on Sept. 19 to discuss Iran. Lobbying for votes is now underway.
The United States has long favored sending the matter to the council, but agreed to back a European Union (E.U.) initiative to offer Iran trade and technology incentives in exchange for abandoning uranium-enrichment work.
Two years of negotiations hit a wall last month, however, when Iran rejected an E.U. offer and resumed uranium conversion. Conversion is a precursor to enrichment, a process producing nuclear fuel that can be used for civilian or military purposes.
Tehran accused its E.U. interlocutors, Britain, France and Germany, of following an agenda set by Washington, and it called for "non-aligned" developing countries on the IAEA board to be brought into the process.
On Aug.11, the board passed a resolution expressing "serious concern" about the development, and tasking IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei to deliver a comprehensive report on the subject.
ElBaradei issued that report last Friday, outlining Iran's failure to cooperate with the agency. As a result, the IAEA was unable to state that Iran did not have secret nuclear material or programs.
"Iran's full transparency is indispensable and overdue," he said.
Western governments suspect Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian energy program. Iran denies this, as does its ally, Russia, which has built a nuclear reactor near Iran's southern port of Bushehr.
Moscow's foreign ministry said Monday Russia saw no reason to report Iran to the Security Council, while fellow council permanent member China took a similar stance, raising a further obstacle to a U.S.-E.U. referral bid.
"Beijing is opposed to the idea of forwarding Iran's nuclear dossier to the U.N. Security Council," Iranian media quoted Chinese ambassador to Tehran, Leo Jen Tung, as saying Monday.
"China defends Iran's legitimate right to take advantage of its nuclear energy for peaceful purposes," he said, adding that the dispute should be settled peacefully at the IAEA and not "antagonistically" before the Security Council.
Developing countries on the IAEA board tend to sympathize with Iran, and two of the more influential ones, India and Pakistan -- both of whom are nuclear weapons capable -- this week expressed opposition to the council being drawn into the dispute.
During a visit to Tehran Saturday, Indian external affairs minister Natwar Singh said his government wanted the issue resolved within the IAEA framework.
Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesman, Mohammed Naeem Khan, said that Islamabad was "against coercive measures" against Iran.
With supporters lining up behind Tehran, officials have shrugged off the threat of referral to the council.
"Gone is the time when they could deny Iran its rights by threatening it," foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told a weekly press briefing Sunday, repeating Iran's stance that it would not give up its "legitimate right to have peaceful nuclear technology."
The head of Iran's nuclear negotiating team, Ali Larijani, told state television that taking Tehran to the council would be a mistake.
A simple breakdown of the IAEA board membership gives the U.S. and its allies (Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and 11 European countries) 17 votes.
The remaining members - many of which are thought likely to support Iran - are China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Ghana, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Venezuela, Vietnam and Yemen.
Five years, or more?
Meanwhile, Iranian lawmakers in a powerful security and foreign policy committee warned that if international pressure builds, they could force the government to further limit its cooperation with the IAEA.
Specifically, they said Iran could revoke its decision to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty's "additional protocol," which widens IAEA access to signatories' nuclear facilities. Iran has signed the protocol, but parliament has yet to ratify it.
In London, a leading think tank issued a report Tuesday saying that, depending on decisions taken and how it handles various technical issues, Iran could develop an atomic bomb in as little as five years.
On the other hand, said the International Institute for Strategic Studies report, "rather than dash for a bomb, Iran may seek gradually to acquire a much more substantial nuclear production capability over a decade or more -- for example by completing a large-scale centrifuge plant for producing nuclear fuel -- before it decides whether to exercise a weapons option."
An illicit nuclear black-market run by former Pakistani nuclear program head Abdul Qadeer Khan is known to have provided Iran with equipment used in the uranium-enrichment process. He made a similar sale to Libya and -- it subsequently emerged -- also provided Tripoli with a design for an atomic device.
With Iran having hidden its nuclear activities from the IAEA for 18 years, the agency is unable to say whether Khan also gave the Iranians a bomb design.
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