The United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) begins what could be a decisive meeting in Vienna today in the long-running dispute over whether Iran is trying to develop nuclear arms. The IAEA Board of Governors could refer Tehran to the UN Security Council for possible sanction over its nuclear program. Washington accuses Tehran of secretly seeking nuclear arms, but Iran says its program is peaceful.
Prague, 25 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The two-day meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors could bring to a head the simmering dispute over what exactly Iran is doing with its nuclear program.
If the 35-member board believes Iran is working on a nuclear bomb -- as the United States asserts -- it could refer Iran to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.
The United States has been pressing hard for UN action on Iran. And tension has been rising in recent days, with both Washington and Iranian exile groups accusing Tehran of secretly developing nuclear weapons capability.
But regional analyst Gary Samore of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London says he does not believe there will be a showdown at the Vienna meeting.
"The IAEA will [instead] report that Iran has instituted the suspension of its [uranium] enrichment program, and so as a consequence the IAEA board of governors will not pass a resolution referring Iran to the Security Council," Samore says.
Iran said it had suspended its uranium enrichment activities three days ago under an agreement with France, Germany, and Britain. The European Union trio has led an effort to seek a diplomatic solution to the dispute.
Rather than going to the UN Security Council, Samore expects the Board of Governors to call on Iran to maintain that suspension and to continue to cooperate with the IAEA in resolving its past activities. He predicts the board will also call on IAEA chief Muhammad el-Baradei to notify it if there is any sign that Iran is not complying with the suspension.
IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecki acknowledges that it will not be easy to maintain the diplomatic balance within the Board of Governors, which might not actually get around to discussing Iran until tomorrow.
"What is most important for the IAEA is that our board remains united behind a common position. We hope that -- like the previous six board meetings that have taken up this isssue -- that they will come to a consensus decision, which will show the system works, and that there is a common view, a collective view representing pretty much the international community," Gwozdecki says.
Iran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. And Tehran has clearly signaled it intends to go ahead with the program without substantial changes -- a policy that would keep it on a collision course with the United States.
On 23 November, Iran's chief delegate to the IAEA, Hussein Musavian, reiterated Tehran's refusal to give up its nuclear program.
"We decided for suspension as a confidence-building measure and as a voluntary policy, not as a legal obligation, not today, not tomorrow, and never," Musavian said.
Musavian added, however, that Iran is prepared to cooperate fully and transparently with the IAEA within the framework of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The cycle for enriching uranium can have either civilian or military applications.
U.S. officials say they suspect Iran is continuing to secretly pursue nuclear arms under the cover of a deal with the EU. They have noted recent reports that Iran raced to produce uranium hexafluoride -- a gas that can be enriched into bomb fuel -- before it observed the temporary suspension on 22 November.
Last week, the IAEA said it had accounted for all the nuclear materials declared by Iran during the past year. But the agency acknowledged the possibility that undeclared nuclear materials may exist in Iran from before that time.
Analyst Samore says the key issue now is whether any package of incentives or threats could persuade Iran not to exercise its capability to produce nuclear weapons.
"Iran has basically joined the group of countries in the world which have an inherent technological capability to produce weapons grade material, and the issue is whether or not it is going to be possible to convince the Iranian government that it is not in its interests to translate that inherent capability into actual nuclear weapons," Samore said.
Hard-liners in the United States, meanwhile, are urging the international community to spell out severe consequences for Iran should it fail to respect its agreement with the EU.
Writing in the 23 November "International Herald Tribune," U.S.-based analyst Alan Isenberg of Stanford University said the EU-Iran deal could be strengthened by means of a U.S.-European accord laying out trigger mechanisms for specific consequences if Iran violates certain benchmarks.
Isenberg says those consequences could include economic sanctions, possible censure by the Security Council -- or even the use of force.
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