Iran Trying to Avoid Security Council Scrutiny of Nuclear Program

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - Iran is trying to win international support amid a looming standoff over its nuclear activities. Ahead of an International Atomic Energy Agency board meeting in November, Tehran will send Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and other envoys to lobby against Iran's referral to the U.N. Security Council.

The envoys would visit China and other countries in Asia, the Mideast and Latin America, foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said Sunday.

Iran's new government, dominated by hardliners, was under fire last week by Washington and London over allegations of support for terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere. It also has hardened its stance on the nuclear row in recent months.

Two years of nuclear talks involving a trio of European Union countries - Britain, France and Germany - have come to a standstill, and Iran is now seeking to draw other, traditionally more friendly nations into its dispute with the West.

"Currently efforts are being made to name new participants to join in the negotiations which will be announced in the near future," Asefi told a press briefing.

The IAEA's 35-member board on Sept. 22 approved an E.U.-drafted resolution critical of Iran's nuclear programs, giving it until November to suspend sensitive activities, and warning that it could then find its dossier put before the Security Council.

The resolution passed by 22 votes to 1 (Venezuela), with 12 abstentions. Iran was especially upset that India, among the most influential developing nations, voted in favor of the measure.

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers sent a joint letter to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, praising the decision.

The Press Trust of India on Saturday quoted the congressmen as saying they hoped that India would again "stand with the international community in supporting referral to the Security Council" at the November meeting.

Meanwhile, Asefi congratulated the IAEA and its Egyptian director, Mohamed ElBaradei, for jointly winning the Nobel peace prize, but warned him "to stay away from political influences" and "not to let the IAEA fall into the hands of the great powers."

Although Iran complains that the U.S. and E.U. are driving IAEA policies, the U.N. agency has in fact done little more than reprimand Iran over the more than three years since its covert nuclear program was exposed by a critic of the regime.

ElBaradei has scolded Iran for failing to report certain activities and materials and for "less than satisfactory" cooperation with the IAEA, but says there is no evidence Iran is seeking a secret weapons program.

Washington suspects Iran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover for attempts to build nuclear weapons, and has been pressing for many months for referral to the Security Council, which could impose sanctions.

Iran says the activities are designed for purely peaceful electricity generation.

In April 2004, President Bush told newspaper editors that Iran's nuclear activities were "intolerable" and said the Iranians "will be dealt with, starting through the United Nations."

But a year later, with no IAEA action yet taken, Bush's envoy in Vienna was reminding the agency of its "statutory obligation" to refer Iran to the Security Council, warning that it could not ignore its responsibility "forever."

Even now, following the Sept. 22 resolution, there is no certainty that the IAEA board will refer Iran to the council next month.

Past IAEA decisions on non-compliance by specific countries have been based on consensus, and even some board members which voted for the last resolution may abstain next time, if council referral is on the table.

India, for one, is coming under sustained pressure. Iran has already hinted strongly at economic retaliation against countries voting against it, and in India's case a major agreement to buy Iranian natural gas is at stake.

Board changes

When the Iran matter does come up before the IAEA board next month, the body's composition will have changed somewhat since the last meeting.

The new board for 2005-6, selected at the watchdog's annual general conference two weeks ago, includes 10 new nations.

The newcomers are Belarus, Colombia, Cuba, Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Libya, Norway, Slovenia and Syria.

They replace Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Poland, Tunisia and Vietnam.

The new board therefore includes three European countries expected to vote with the U.S.-E.U. against Iran, and seven developing ones - including U.S. arch critics Cuba and Syria - more likely to vote against or abstain.

The changes give Iran a slight boost, since five of the ten countries which have now left the board (Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland and Peru) voted with the U.S.-E.U last time.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow