More Diplomacy, As Iran Works to Avoid Security Council Referral

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - A week before the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog considers whether Iran should be brought before the Security Council for its nuclear activities, diplomatic lobbying for and against the move are intensifying.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, visited Beijing Thursday to seek China's backing at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board meeting next Thursday.

Earlier, Larijani held talks in Moscow, where he found an apparently sympathetic audience.

After his meeting with Russian security council chief Igor Ivanov, a brief statement released by Ivanov's press service said the two sides had agreed the problem should be resolved "diplomatically within the IAEA framework."

The U.S. and its allies believe that approach hasn't worked up to now, however, and that Iran's nuclear activity is a matter for the Security Council. Washington has long favored such a step, but agreed to give a European Union (E.U.) diplomatic initiative a chance to succeed.

Iran-E.U. talks broke down last fall. Iran's decision to remove IAEA seals from nuclear equipment on January 10 and announce it would soon resume nuclear-fuel research prompted the E.U. to call for next Thursday's emergency meeting of the 35-member board.

Russia and China have backed Iran previously at the IAEA, and Tehran is banking on their support again to head off a bid to have the board refer Iran to the council, a move that could lead to sanctions.

The U.S. and European Union suspect that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of its civilian nuclear energy program. Tehran, which hid its nuclear activities from the international community for almost two decades, denies the charge.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and colleagues from the council's five permanent members - the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia - will meet in London on Monday - three days before the IAEA meeting - to discuss the Iran situation and how to proceed.

Russian proposal

In what the U.S. says is clearly a stalling tactic, Tehran has now signaled interest in a Russian plan that would enable Iran to carry out its wish to enrich uranium, but to do so on Russian territory.

Uranium enrichment is sensitive because it can produce fuel for power plants or nuclear weapons.

President Vladimir Putin said this week Russia was ready to build an international center to offer services including uranium enrichment - under IAEA controls - to any country that was interested.

This would provide such countries with "access to nuclear energy, with reliable guarantees that the nuclear non-proliferation regime will be observed," he told a summit of several former Soviet states in St. Petersburg.

Putin said he would raise the idea at a summit Russia will host of the G-8 industrialized countries later this year. Russia took over the group's rotating presidency on January 1.

Early this month Iran rejected Russia's proposal, but Larijani said after his talks in Moscow that Tehran was "positive" about the idea and would discuss it in more depth with the Russians.

Those discussions would be held on February 16 - that is, two weeks after the IAEA board meeting.

But if the IAEA refers Iran to the Security Council before then, Larijani and other Iranian officials have warned they will stop all cooperation with the IAEA and renew uranium enrichment work.

The State Department saw the apparent Iranian shift on the Russian plan as another ploy to delay Security Council referral.

"A lot of rhetoric without any action," spokesman Sean McCormack told a press briefing Wednesday. "That's what we have again here."

McCormack said the U.S. and "many other members of the international community" believed it was time Iran was sent to the Security Council, and "we encourage the Russian government to vote for referral."

He said the U.S. was currently talking to the Russians and others about how the issue should be dealt with once it arrives before the council.

Although sanctions could potentially be imposed, U.S. officials have indicated that referral to the council would not be the end of efforts to find a diplomatic solution.

Some conservatives believe sanctions should only be the first step.

In a policy paper released on Monday, the Committee on the Present Danger, an advocacy organization focusing on fighting terrorism, called for sanctions, more effective U.S. assistance for pro-democracy dissidents in Iran, and regime change.

China's stance

The diplomatic focus has now moved to China which, like Russia, wields a veto in the Security Council and has sided with Iran in the dispute thus far.

China, the world's fastest-growing economy, is a major customer of Iranian oil and hopes to buy $70 billion worth of liquefied natural gas from Iran over the next three decades.

Beijing's envoy to Tehran said last week his country would in the near future become Iran's leading trade partner.

Larijani arrived in China shortly after the visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, Robert Zoellick, warned his Chinese hosts that if they were concerned about energy security, then it would be very dangerous to allow the development of nuclear weapons in the oil-rich and politically-sensitive region.

"From an energy security point of view, one also needs to signal strongly to the Iranians not to take this course," he told a press conference in Sichuan province.

U.S. and Chinese strategic objectives were the same. But as to the approaches each may take, Zoellick said, they "may or may not vary."

Foreign ministry spokesman Kong Quan said Thursday China welcomed the Russian compromise proposal as a possible way of breaking the stalemate.

Kong also said China was opposed to sanctions or threats of sanctions.

(Sergei Blagov in Moscow contributed to this report.)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow