Iran faces nuclear showdown at United Nations

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Iran's confrontation with the West will escalate today when the country will be referred to the UN security council for its continued refusal to come clean about its suspected nuclear weapons programme.

The adoption of a resolution by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board in Vienna will place Iran on the security council's agenda - setting out the steps the Iranian leadership must take to avert possible punitive action.

The draft resolution will demand that Iran explain why it has documents related to the construction of a nuclear bomb, when it claims its intentions are purely peaceful.

The IAEA chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, urged Iran to comply with the demands, saying the Iranian leadership now had a "window of opportunity" before 6 March, when he is due to make a full report to a regular session of the board.

However, Iran notified the IAEA that it would stop co-operating with UN snap inspections and resume nuclear enrichment that could eventually lead to production of a nuclear weapon, if referral went ahead.

The resolution is expected to be passed by a majority of the 35-member board following agreement among the five big powers on the UN security council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the US - and Germany at a meeting in London on Monday. But backers of the draft were hoping last night to collect more supporters to send a strong message to Iran, as non-aligned members of the board did not have a unified position.

Diplomats said the countries most likely to vote against the draft are Cuba, Syria and Venezuela which argue that Iran has done nothing illegal. Iran maintains that it is within its rights to pursue nuclear energy and denies accusations that it is developing a bomb under cover of a civilian programme. Developing nations fear that referring Iran to the Security Council could cripple their own nuclear power options.

The draft resolution, sponsored by the Europeans, calls on Iran to freeze all uranium-enrichment activities, after the Iranians resumed uranium conversion last August and broke UN seals on its enrichment plant at Natanz last month. It also calls on Iran to reconsider the construction of a 40 megawatt plant at Arak which could eventually be used to produce plutonium for a nuclear bomb.

The draft also asks Iran to account for a document on the production of uranium metal hemispheres which "is related to the fabrication of nuclear weapons components". IAEA inspectors had been given fresh access this week to the 15-page document which relates to a 1987 offer to Iran of "off-the-shelf" nuclear designs and components. Their scrutiny of the document this week confirmed the nuclear weapons link, according to diplomats in Vienna.

Iran has said in the past that although it had been contacted by the Pakistani AQ Khan black market network it had never pursued an offer of sensitive equipment for building the core of a nuclear bomb.

Diplomats attending the emergency IAEA session yesterday played down the threat of sanctions, in hopes of persuading Iran to comply. Britain and its allies insist that no military action is being considered. "We are not now seeking sanctions or other punitive measures against Iran," said US Ambassador Gregory Schulte.

Mr ElBaradei said: "We are reaching a critical phase but it is not a crisis situation. It's about confidence building and it is not about an imminent threat." Intelligence estimates of when Iran might be able to build a bomb range from two to more than 10 years.

In Washington, US intelligence chief John Negroponte told the Senate intelligence committee that Tehran "probably does not yet have a nuclear weapon and probably has not yet produced or acquired the necessary fissile material".

History of Tehran's uranium programme


US and Iran sign nuclear co-operation agreement.


Iran signs Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and agrees to adhere to internationally-agreed safeguards monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).


Under the Shah, Iran embarks on nuclear power project with plans for plants generating 23,000megawatts of energy within 20 years. Letters of intent signed with the West, including US, Germany and France but 1979 Islamic revolution halts co-operation.


During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, Iran was in touch with intermediaries of the nuclear parts black market run by the Pakistani scientist Dr AQ Khan. At a meeting with a Khan representative, Iran receives a written offer for the delivery of the makings of a nuclear weapons programme. Iran buys P-1 gas centrifuge designs to enrich uranium and a starter kit for uranium enrichment. But Iran told the IAEA they decided not to pursue an offer of parts for the core of a bomb. Documents concerning the 1987 offer were made available to the UN inspectors only recently.


Iran and Russia sign a nuclear co-operation agreement followed by a 1995 deal for the Russians to construct a light-water civil reactor at Bushehr which has not yet come on stream.


With help from the Khan network, Iran buys a duplicate set of P-1 centrifuge designs, components for 500 used P-1 centrifuges and takes delivery of a design for the advanced P-2 centrifuge. But Iran has not proved it did not work on the P-2 between 1995 and 2002.


In 1996, Iran begins building a heavy-water research reactor at Arak which can produce plutonium capable of making a nuclear bomb. Between 1996-99, up to 10 meetings are held with the Khan representatives, which the Iranians say were trying to solve problems in the P-1 centrifuges.


Construction of Natanz plant for uranium enrichment begins but Iran confirms its existence officially only in 2003, a year after Iranian dissidents revealed it.


After talks with Britain, France and Germany, Iran agrees to freeze its uranium enrichment-related activities in return for promises of technological and economic incentives.


The hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is elected President, and Iran restarts uranium conversion at Isfahan, causing Europe to break off talks. Last month, it reopened its uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, which is capable of producing weapons-grade uranium.