VIENNA, (Reuters) – U.N. nuclear watchdog governors voted overwhelmingly on Friday to censure Iran for building a uranium enrichment plant in secret.
The resolution, passed by a 25-3 margin with six abstentions, was the first by the 35-nation governing board in almost four years, and a sign of growing alarm over Tehran’s failure to dispel fears it seeks to build a nuclear bomb.
With rare Russian and Chinese backing, the vote sent a message of increasing international resolve to challenge Iran over its disputed nuclear ambitions. But it was unclear whether the measure, sponsored by six world powers, would translate to crucial Russian-Chinese support for painful sanctions that Western leaders will push for early next year if Iran does not embark on steps to defuse mistrust.
The measure won blanket Western backing. Cuba, Malaysia and Venezuela, prominent in a developing nation bloc that includes Iran, voted “no”, while Afghanistan, Brazil, Egypt, Pakistan, South Africa and Turkey abstained. Azerbaijan missed the ballot.
Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons, saying its atomic energy programme is purely for peaceful purposes.
Its envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, called the resolution a “hasty and undue” step.
“Adoption of this resolution is not only unhelpful in improving the current situation, but it will jeopardise the conducive environment vitally needed for success in the process of Geneva and Vienna negotiations expected to lead to a common understanding,” he said.
Developing nations argued in pre-vote debate that the resolution would be provocative and counterproductive. But supporters were provoked by the September revelation of a second enrichment site that Iran had been building for at least two years, a subterfuge they said fanned suspicions of more secret sites that could be dedicated to making atom bombs.
The vote signalled diminishing tolerance of Iran’s reluctance to embrace an IAEA-brokered plan to provide it with fuel for a nuclear medicine reactor if it parts with enriched uranium that could be turned into bomb material if further refined.
The draft resolution urged Iran to immediately halt construction of the Fordow enrichment plant, located in a mountain bunker, and to clarify its purpose and confirm it has no more hidden atomic facilities or clandestine plans for any.
Iran has told the IAEA it developed the Fordow site in secret as a backup for other, known facilities in case they were bombed by Israel, which deems the Islamic Republic’s expanding nuclear programme “an existential threat”.
The last IAEA board resolution slapped on Iran was in February 2006 when governors referred Tehran’s dossier to the U.N. Security Council over its refusal to suspend enrichment and open up completely to IAEA inspections and investigations.
Iran had assured the IAEA last year it was not hiding any nuclear-related activities in violation of transparency rules.
Friday’s resolution voiced “serious concern” at the Fordow cover-up and said this blatantly defied U.N. Security Council demands dating to 2006 for a suspension of sensitive nuclear activity to foster trust and negotiations.
Russian and Chinese support was significant since the two, who have veto power in the Security Council, have often blocked a tough united front against Iran in global policy bodies and avoided direct criticism of Tehran.
Western powers will hope the disenchantment of Russia and China with Iran, conveyed in Friday’s resolution, evolves into support for tougher sanctions if Iran does not drop demands for what they see as unacceptable amendments to the fuel deal by the end of this year.
But Russian and Chinese officials have said in the past week that diplomatic chances to coax more Iranian cooperation are far from exhausted, counselling patience over punishment.