An ominous new report by the UN's nuclear watchdog showing that Iran is closer than ever to becoming a nuclear weapons state will trigger fresh debate among Western governments about how to respond. But it is unlikely on its own to prompt new international sanctions, diplomats said yesterday.
Anxiety about Iran has flared in part because of early leaks of the report compiled by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Adding to tensions have been reports that Israeli cabinet members, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, below, agree over a possible military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
The IAEA findings, which will be handed to the 15 members of the UN Security Council tomorrow, will say that significant and convincing evidence has been obtained that Iran is seeking to acquire a nuclear arsenal and has sought to mislead the UN watchdog about its atomic programme.
Since the supposed discontinuation of the military side of the programme in 2003, the Tehran regime has taken steps which imply an ambition to fit nuclear warheads to missiles, the document is expected to state. Of particular interest has been the building of a chamber intended for nuclear-related explosives testing needed to release a nuclear blast.
The presence of the container, the "size of a double-decker bus" at the military base at Parchin near Tehran, was discovered using satellite photographs as well as information supplied to the IAEA by two foreign governments. The Iranian regime had not revealed that it had this facility to the UN body.
While the IAEA reports on Iran to the Security Council quarterly, its conclusions this time are clearly more substantial, and more worrying, than is usual. It will also say, for instance, that Iranian scientists and technicians have worked on computer models which can only relate to nuclear payloads for missiles.
The thrust of the report, however, will be familiar – that Iran remains intent on developing nuclear weapons even if it repeatedly says otherwise. An analyst with a Western government familiar with the report said: "There is no smoking gun in the report but a gradual and telling accumulation of evidence of intent."
It is unlikely, therefore, that the report will persuade the US to push for action in the Security Council to add new sanctions on Iran, in part because of likely resistance from Russia and, in particular, China.
"The sanctions we already have in place covered everything related to the nuclear programme and the wider military industrial complex in Iran and to go significantly further with a new resolution would basically mean tackling the oil and gas sectors, which would probably be beyond what Russia and China would stomach," one senior UN source said.
But he added that the noises coming out of Israel about a possible strike may have a greater influence on events than the IAEA. The message to Russia and China could be that "if we don't increase sanctions then others may take matters into their own hands", he said.
The Iranian regime also recently revealed that it will be enriching uranium to 20 per cent and storing the centrifuges in a mountain bunker at Fordow, near the holy city of Qom. The regime insists that this is for medical isotopes but Western officials hold that the amount being produced is four times the amount the country could need. The high level of enrichment is just one step away from weaponisation.
The UN report will conclude that Iran received help from a number of sources, including Russian and North Korean experts. But the driving force for the nuclear programme came from the renegade Pakistani scientist AQ Khan and his "nuclear supermarket", which, according to Western officials, was organised with the knowledge of the Pakistani military.