UN referral is the end of diplomacy, warns Iran

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The Independent Online

Iran reacted with defiance after the five big powers on the United Nations Security Council agreed to report Tehran to the UN body over its suspected nuclear weapons programme.

European powers persuaded Russia and China, previously cool to the idea of referral, to agree to the move at a dinner which ended in the early hours of yesterday. But as a compromise, Britain, France and Germany agreed to wait until next month before asking the Security Council to take any action. The united stand by the big powers opens a five-week window in which they hope that Iran will back away from confrontation and resume a freeze on its uranium-enrichment activities, which could eventually produce a bomb.

But those hopes were dispelled last night when Ali Larijani, Iran's senior nuclear negotiator, said "reporting Iran's dossier to the UN Security Council will be unconstructive and the end of diplomacy". He said Iran would no longer allow snap inspections by the UN weapons inspectors as of Saturday, if referred to the council, and "start all nuclear work that has been voluntarily suspended".

The UN nuclear watchdog confirmed that Iran had begun preparing for nuclear enrichment at its Natanz plant, where work had been suspended until last month.

If Iran resumes enrichment it would deepen the simmering crisis even further and fuel speculation of possible pre-emptive military strikes. According to the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, it would only be a matter of months for Iran to produce a bomb once Natanz is up and running, a process which could take two years.

A British official said the Iranian reaction was "predictable" after the united message agreed by the big powers, a step Tony Blair described as very important. "Iran faces a very clear choice," said Mr Blair. "It can either come into compliance with its international obligations or the international community is going to become increasingly concerned about Iran and the direction of its policy."

The US and Europe suspect that Iran is developing a nuclear bomb under cover of a civilian programme. Iran denies it, insisting its ambitions are peaceful.

The London meeting was attended by the foreign ministers of the permanent members of the Security Council - Britain, US, France, China and Russia - plus the German Foreign Minister and the high representative of the European Union, Javier Solana.

They decided the first step would be to place Iran on the Security Council agenda at tomorrow's board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency by reporting on the steps that Tehran must take to comply with IAEA requirements.

Whether the Security Council is asked to take action depends on the outcome of the 6 March regular IAEA board meeting, which is due to hear a full report from the IAEA chief, Mohamed ElBaradei. But Iran fears that being placed on the first rung of the council's ladder could be the first step on the road to sanctions. Russian and Chinese officials flew to Tehran last night hoping to impress on the country's leaders that even their economic partners in Moscow and Beijing share concerns.

The resolution being prepared for tomorrow's IAEA meeting is likely to be adopted by the 35 members. But Venezuela said it would oppose reporting Iran to the Security Council as it agreed with Tehran that it had the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

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