VIENNA,(Reuters) – Iran faces the risk of sanctions when the U.N. nuclear watchdog delivers its verdict on Thursday about whether Tehran has met a deadline to suspend an atomic fuel programme that Western leaders say could lead to bombs.
Ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline, Tehran vowed “never” to scrap the project and dedicated one of its cornerstones, a heavy-water production plant, for good measure.
The U.N. Security Council asked International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei to spell out if Iran had heeded the deadline set in a July 31 resolution.
“The outcome is obvious. No one really expected otherwise,” a senior diplomat close to the IAEA said when asked if ElBaradei would judge Iran in defiance of the Security Council.
Diplomats said Washington felt the 30-day grace period given Iran was a fair chance for it to change its mind and if it did not, veto-holding Russia and China could be won over to backing Council sanctions once the deadline expired.
But Iran’s deft Aug. 22 reply to an offer of incentives not to pursue enrichment, hinting it could curb the work as a result of talks but not as a precondition, has rattled the shaky united front of six big powers handling Tehran’s case.
Russia and China have called for a return to talks while key Council allies of Washington, Britain and France, have dampened U.S. predictions of a swift resort to sanctions next month.
“ElBaradei’s assessment that Iran has not suspended enrichment will provide a basis for the U.S., UK and France to argue in favour of imposing sanctions,” said Gary Samore, chief global security analyst at Chicago’s MacArthur Foundation.
“But Iran has obviously decided to press ahead, calculating that the Council is incapable of reaching agreement on serious economic sanctions and that sanctions outside the U.N. (mooted by a frustrated Washington) will not be effective.”
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was as matter-of-fact as ever on Tuesday. “Peaceful nuclear energy is the right of the Iranian nation … and no one can stop it,” he told reporters.
The IAEA has also been looking into concerns that Iran’s official agenda to make nuclear fuel only for electricity may be a civilian facade for a military quest to make atom bombs.
Probe targets since 2003 include plutonium experiments, alleged administrative links between processing of uranium ore, explosives tests and a missile warhead design, and black-market acquisitions of parts for centrifuge enrichment machines.
ElBaradei’s report may state that Iran has stonewalled the myriad inquiries to a standstill, another senior diplomat said.
Iran has been withholding answers to IAEA questions as bargaining chips for any crunch talks with the big powers, diplomats say, and of late has slashed cooperation with IAEA inspectors to a legal — but problematic — minimum.
Tehran in August denied a visa to a veteran IAEA centrifuge expert. For months it has not renewed multiple-entry visas to inspectors that have ensured regular monitoring of its atomic sites, diplomats accredited to the Vienna-based agency said.
“ElBaradei should report that the cumulative impact of this behaviour comes close to circumscribing the IAEA’s ability to conduct even the routine inspections required under the NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty),” said Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
“The less information available, the more Iran restricts inspector access, the wider the window of uncertainty becomes and the more Western decision-makers must rely on worst-case assumptions,” he told Reuters.
ElBaradei will also update the Council on Iran’s pilot enrichment programme at Natanz. In April, Tehran purified uranium to the low level needed for power plant fuel for the first time, using a pilot cascade of 164 interconnected centrifuges. But enrichment work has slowed since then, possibly due to quality-control glitches, diplomats told Reuters.
“Iran is running barely any uranium through the centrifuges at all now. They are mainly test-spinning the centrifuges,” said one diplomat. “The difference between what the Security Council is demanding and what Iran is doing may be pretty small.”
Iran, which calls for Israel’s destruction, says its nuclear agenda is wholly peaceful and will never threaten any nation.