VIENNA,(Reuters) – The U.N. nuclear watchdog inched on Thursday towards reporting Iran to the U.N. Security Council over fears it secretly seeks atomic bombs but the agency’s chief said Tehran did not pose “an imminent threat”.
U.S. and European Union leaders, aware that Russia, China and developing nations are keen to avoid a confrontation with Iran, said Security Council involvement did not mean an end to diplomacy or that Tehran would necessarily face U.N. sanctions.
Diplomats said EU sponsors of a resolution to report Iran were in sharp debate with developing states over what role the council should play, but predicted that up to 30 of the 35 nations on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s governing board would eventually vote in favour.
The IAEA meeting adjourned in mid-afternoon until 1400 GMT on Friday, meaning there would be no vote before then.
Tehran has threatened to hit back by halting U.N. spot checks of its atomic sites and pursuing wide-scale enrichment of uranium, which can be used for atomic power plants or warheads.
“Iran has always been ready to remove ambiguities about its nuclear activities. If, however, a historical mistake is made (involving the Security Council), Iran has to implement a law to suspend all voluntary cooperation with the IAEA,” Tehran’s envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltaniyeh, said in a statement.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said the special meeting was to prod Iran to resolve years of suspicion about its nuclear goals before his report to a regular IAEA session on March 6.
“We are reaching a critical phase but it is not a crisis situation. It’s about confidence-building and it is not about an imminent threat,” he said. Intelligence estimates of when Iran might be able to build a bomb range from two to over 10 years.
In Washington, U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte said the danger of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon and the ability to add it to ballistic missiles Tehran already has was reason “for immediate concern”.
Iran concealed nuclear activities from the IAEA for 18 years until 2003. In September, the IAEA declared Iran non-compliant with commitments as a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but put off referring it to the Security Council.
The Islamic Republic, whose president has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, says it wants nuclear energy only to produce electricity. The IAEA has found no hard evidence to the contrary but says Iran still has many questions to answer.
Chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said sending Iran to the Security Council had “no legal and technical basis”.
ElBaradei emphasised that even strong advocates of taking Iran to the Security Council, such as Washington, were not asking the world body to consider sanctions soon. “All of them are saying that this is simply a continuation of diplomacy.”
EU powers called the extraordinary IAEA session after Iran on Jan. 9 broke a 2-1/2-year moratorium on atomic development activity agreed with Britain, France and Germany.
Washington and European allies then persuaded Russia and China, which have important commercial interests in Iran, to back reporting Tehran to the Security Council.
The rare show of unity among the U.N. big five emerged only after Western powers agreed the council would not act against Iran until after ElBaradei’s March report.
This would allow time for Russia and Iran to work on details of Moscow’s offer to purify uranium for Tehran, a joint venture aimed at preventing diversion of nuclear fuel to bomb-making. Negotiations on the compromise proposal are set for Feb. 16.
Oil fell by $1 a barrel after Western leaders played down the threat of sanctions. Fears of major supply bottlenecks — Iran is the No. 4 world oil exporter — because of the nuclear standoff have sent prices up by over 10 percent this year.
German Ambassador Herbert Honsowitz, speaking for the EU, said that to ease tensions, Iran must reverse its announced resumption of nuclear fuel research and some uranium enrichment.
Malaysian envoy Rajmah Hussain, representing the Non-Aligned Movement bloc at the IAEA, urged “patience and restraint”.
Developing nations fear that referring Iran to the Security Council could cripple their own nuclear power options.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused the West of “arrogance” in seeking Security Council engagement in restraining Iran’s quest for nuclear energy.
“(You) have got nerve to try to deprive us of our legal right … Who are you to threaten our nation like that? The Iranian nation is aware of your plots and will not be deceived by you and will stand against your excessive demands,” IRNA news agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.