Tensions Mount Ahead of IAEA Meeting on Iran

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

(CNSNews.com) - Upping the stakes ahead of a showdown in Vienna this week, Iranian lawmakers passed legislation compelling their government to ban arms inspectors if the U.N. nuclear watchdog refers Iran to the Security Council.

In a session broadcast live on state radio, the majlis (parliament) on Sunday voted 183-10 in favor of a bill requiring Tehran to end all "voluntary cooperation" with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and an agreement allowing short-notice inspections of nuclear facilities.

The majlis, like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government itself, is dominated by radicals and former members of the Revolutionary Guard.

Since his election last June, Ahmadinejad has ratcheted up a dispute with the West over a nuclear program which the U.S. and European Union suspects is a cover for a drive to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran says its nuclear development program -- hidden from the IAEA for 18 years until exposed in 2002 -- is a purely civilian operation for generating electricity.

On Thursday, the IAEA's 35-member board of governors will meet in the Austrian capital to consider whether to refer Iran's nuclear activities to the Security Council, a step that could lead to sanctions or other measures.

An earlier IAEA meeting, in September, passed a resolution setting the stage for possible referral depending on Tehran's conduct in the weeks following. But Iran appears, if anything, to have hardened its position.

Last Friday, the government confirmed it has resumed uranium conversion at a plant in Isfahan, 400 kilometers south of Tehran. It had earlier suspended the work under an agreement with Britain, France and Germany, known collectively as the E.U.-3.

Uranium conversion is a step preceding enrichment, which can produce material to fuel either civilian reactors or atomic bombs.

Ending "voluntary cooperation" with the IAEA, as called for in the bill passed Sunday, would also entail a resumption of uranium enrichment.

Even without the new legislation, Tehran has threatened to end cooperation with the agency if the nuclear dossier is sent to the Security Council.

A preparatory IAEA report compiled ahead of Thursday's meeting, leaked late last week to wire services, referred to a number of outstanding issues concerning Iran's nuclear program including refusal to give inspectors access to a sensitive site, and said more transparency from Tehran was "indispensable and overdue."

Iran's relations with the West have grown chillier in other, non-nuclear areas too.

Ahmadinejad came under fire last month for remarks calling for the destruction of Israel, and Britain accused Iran of links to sophisticated roadside explosives used in attacks which had killed British soldiers in Iraq.

Late last week, the European Parliament said Iran was involved in human rights abuses in Iraq, while a U.N. General Assembly committee separately passed a Canadian-sponsored resolution expressing "serious concern" over torture, intimidation and other human rights abuses in Iran.

In a tough-worded speech in Vienna last Thursday, the U.S. envoy to the IAEA, Gregory Schulte, characterized Iran as a regime that suppresses freedom at home and sponsors terror abroad.

"Allowing this regime to be armed with nuclear weapons is a recipe for political blackmail, regional instability - or worse."

Schulte accused Iran of "lying, covering up and withholding information on its nuclear activities," and said referral to the Security Council was "a means, not an end."

"A report to the Security Council would not be the end of diplomacy. It would be part of diplomacy," he said.

"Rather than supplanting the IAEA effort, the Security Council would reinforce it," for example by calling on Iran to cooperate with the IAEA and giving the agency enhanced authority to investigate Iran.

U.S. officials met with counterparts from the E.U.-3, Russia, and other countries on Friday to discuss Iran. Some reports said China would also take part although the State Department has not confirmed this.

Russia and China -- both veto-wielding Security Council members -- have up to now backed Iran at the IAEA, as have most "non-aligned" developing countries.

India went against the flow at the IAEA board's September meeting, siding with the U.S. and E.U. position in a vote that went 22 to 1 (Venezuela), with 12 abstentions.

While warmly welcomed in Washington, New Delhi's decision set off a heated debate in India, where in the run up to Thursday's meeting media and political analysts are speculating furiously about which way Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government would go in a new vote.

Changes to the composition of the IAEA board since the September vote may give Iran a slight advantage over last time: Ten seats have since changed hands, and seven of the newcomers are developing countries - including Cuba and Syria - likely to vote against or abstain in a new vote.

By contrast, five of the 10 countries to have left the board voted with the U.S.-E.U. in September.

See earlier story:
India's Vote Against Iran Seen as Important Shift (Sept. 27, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow