LONDON (Reuters) -The United States and European Union were seeking Russian and Chinese support for robust diplomatic steps to curb Iran’s nuclear program in talks among UN Security Council powers that began on Monday.
Iran’s resumption of research that could advance a quest for civilian atomic energy or bombs has sparked a flurry of Western diplomacy in pursuit of a vote by the UN nuclear watchdog to refer Iran to the Council for possible sanctions.
Moscow, with a $1 billion stake building Iran’s first atomic reactor, and Beijing, reliant on Iranian oil for its surging economy, have previously blocked such a move at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors.
But Russia has warned Iran it could lose Moscow’s support unless it suspended the fuel research it resumed last week.
China, however, said resorting to the Security Council might “complicate the issue,” citing Iran’s threat to hit back by halting snap UN inspections of its atomic plants.
Russia and China are veto-wielding permanent members of the Council, along with the United States, Britain and France.
Diplomats said the London meeting of permanent Council members and Germany was aimed at reaching a consensus before an emergency IAEA board meeting the West wants next month.
“There’s some confidence that Russia is increasingly leaning toward the EU3-U.S. position and will not block referral,” said a diplomat with the EU trio of Germany, France and Britain that last week called off a moribund dialogue with Iran.
But he said China looked more difficult to persuade.
“The crucial thing for us now is to gauge where Russia and China are on this matter,” said another EU3 diplomat.
“It is a very fluid situation. This meeting is about next steps on Iran’s nuclear program. Sanctions may be addressed briefly or in depth; it’s hard to say at this stage.”
If the Western powers find Russia and China ready to back referral, the talks could yield a date for an IAEA board meeting well ahead of its next scheduled session on March 6.
U.S Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph, who oversees arms control issues, was in Vienna for talks with IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei and other diplomats, a U.S. spokesman said.
Iran says it seeks atomic energy only to power its economy — the IAEA has unearthed no proof to the contrary — within its rights as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But Iran’s concealment of nuclear activities for almost 20 years until it was exposed by dissident exiles in 2002, a spotty record of cooperation with the IAEA since, and calls for wiping out Israel have fired Western resolve to rein it in.
ElBaradei was quoted by Newsweek magazine that it was not impossible Iran had a secret nuclear arms program.
“If they have the nuclear material and they have a parallel weaponization program along the way, they are really not very far — a few months — from a weapon,” he told Newsweek.
“We still need to assure ourselves through access to documents, individuals (and) locations that we have seen all that we ought to see and that there is nothing fishy, if you like, about the program,” ElBaradei added.
Western officials say Iran crossed the “red line” last week by stripping IAEA seals from equipment that purifies uranium, used for nuclear fuel, or if highly enriched, for bombs.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington wanted the IAEA board to meet soon rather than wait until March, to deny Iran time to “obfuscate” further on the nuclear issue.
“There is some work to do because you would like there to be a strong consensus for a vote,” she said during an Africa trip.
A German government official said ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s trip to Moscow on Monday that the EU3 was amenable to reviving its talks with Iran — but only if it once again suspended its fuel-development program.
An EU3 diplomat in Berlin said Merkel hoped to win an assurance from Russian President Vladimir Putin that Moscow would not obstruct Security Council referral and would form a common front with the EU and United States in handling Iran.
But OPEC giant Iran noted that any crackdown could drive up world oil prices, which would batter industrialized economies.
Iran is the world’s fourth largest exporter of crude oil.
Tehran also said only diplomacy, not threats of Security Council referral, could defuse its standoff with the West.