Ministers to call for emergency talks on Iran's nuclear plan

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The foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany will today pave the way for Iran to be referred to the UN Security Council after Tony Blair increased the pressure for Tehran to be punished for escalating its nuclear programme.

Officials said the three ministers, meeting in Berlin, would urge the International Atomic Energy Agency to call an emergency board meeting "in the next two to three weeks" to discuss referring Iran to the council for possible sanctions.

The ministers will also discuss whether to continue a dialogue with the hardline Iranian leadership in the light of Iran's decision to remove seals at a sensitive nuclear facility that could be used to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

A European diplomat said: "When the door has been slammed in our face there is no need to show weakness."

In the House of Commons, Mr Blair said: "I think the first thing to do is to secure agreement for a reference to the Security Council." Asked about possible sanctions, Mr Blair responded: "We obviously don't rule out any measures at all. It's important Iran recognises how seriously the international community treats it."

Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council and IAEA board member, had previously opposed referral to the UN, but yesterday it signalled that its patience was running out. The Russian Foreign Ministry said after a conversation between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that both countries share "a deep disappointment over Tehran's decision to leave behind the moratorium on all activities tied with uranium enrichment".

Iran stepped up its dispute with the West on Tuesday by removing seals on uranium enrichment-related equipment at Natanz, ending a two-year moratorium at the site.

The IAEA chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, expressed serious concern at the decision by the Iranians while the UN watchdog is still investigating the full extent of Iran's nuclear programme.

A British diplomat said a "sliding scale of options" would be on the table if the IAEA board decided to refer Iran to the Security Council. These could involve a travel ban for Iranian leaders and financial controls in a first stage. If Iran still refused to comply with its obligations and come clean on its nuclear programme, there would be pressure for economic sanctions.

President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad shrugged off the outcry, reaffirming Iran's position that it is engaged in nuclear research for civilian ends. The Iranian nation "has no fear at all of the fuss created by the big powers," he said.

At the IAEA there are fears that sanctions could be counterproductive, as they could prompt Iran to bolt from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a strategy followed by North Korea when it was developing its own nuclear weapon.