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Iran nuke confrontation looms

Britain pushes weaker of 2 drafts for rebuke by the U.N. Security Council

VIENNA, Austria — Raising the stakes in the West's confrontation with Iran, Britain formally proposed Friday that the Iranian government be reported to the U.N. Security Council for its failure to comply with treaties governing its nuclear program.

But in a sign of the deepening rift over Iran on the International Atomic Energy Agency's board, Britain submitted the weaker of two draft resolutions, which leaves open the timing of such a report.

After a rancorous debate over when to vote on the measure, the 35-member board agreed to reconvene today. Diplomats here said they expected it to be passed by a solid majority, though Russia, China and several other countries have signaled they were likely to oppose it.

The resolution, drafted by Britain, France and Germany, and endorsed by the United States, said there was an "absence of confidence that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes."

Under the circumstances, the resolution said, the issue should be taken up by the Security Council.

Europe's decision to propose the softer resolution came after a week of intense and ultimately fruitless diplomacy at the agency's Vienna headquarters. The Europeans had sought to win unanimous support for a resolution that would have reported Iran to the Security Council immediately.

Russia, China and other nations steadfastly opposed that, saying it would aggravate an already tense situation. They also objected to the less severe resolution, a draft of which was circulated in the middle of the week. Russian officials did not react to the formal resolution on Friday.

But Russia's likely opposition, as well as China's, sets up a confrontation on the Security Council, where both hold permanent seats.

The European nations' aggressive move reflects their frustration with Iran, which announced last month it would abandon an earlier pledge to suspend its conversion and enrichment of uranium. Iran had agreed to halt such activity while it tried to negotiate a settlement with Britain, France and Germany.

The goal of reporting Iran to the Security Council is not to impose sanctions, said diplomats involved in the negotiations. Rather, they hope that the council will increase pressure on Iran to abide by its agreements with the agency and to suspend uranium enrichment.

"Our goal is not to punish Iran but to put further pressure on Iran," said a Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the talks. "We have no intention of sanctioning Iran; we recognize that sanctioning Iran would hurt Russia and China."

Russia and China have economic and ideological reasons to support Iran. Russia, a longtime ally, is constructing a reactor for the Iranians in Bushehr. China, which depends on Iran for oil, worries that sanctions could destabilize the international energy market.

Iranian officials did not speak during Friday's board meeting, but diplomats here said they showed two unsigned letters to some board members. In one, the Iranian government said that if the resolution was passed, Iran would resume uranium enrichment at a plant in Natanz.

In the second, Iran said it would withdraw from a set of agreements with the atomic energy agency that provide for more intrusive inspections.

If Iran moved to restart enrichment at Natanz, it would further ratchet up the tension between the Iranian government, which claims its nuclear program is purely peaceful, and the West, particularly the United States, which suspects Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.

The discovery by inspectors in 2003 that Iran had been clandestinely enriching uranium — a process necessary for producing weapons-grade fuel — ignited this latest confrontation.

The agency's board has passed seven resolutions on Iran since June 2003, all unanimously, which chided Iran for its concealment and urged it to grant inspectors unfettered access.

While Iran has allowed several visits by agency officials, it has barred access to some sites, and razed one, which the agency believed Iran might have been using for the development of nuclear technology.

By early this month, when the agency's director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, issued his latest report, patience was running thin.

Departing from the agency's usual tone of studied neutrality, the report said, "In view of the fact that the agency is not in a position to clarify some important outstanding issues after two and a half years of intensive inspection and investigation, Iran's full transparency is indispensable and overdue."

Still, officials at the agency viewed this resolution with chagrin. The debate over the vote on the measure was as vitriolic as some here could recall, and they said it could harm efforts to seek consensus on Iran.

ElBaradei is said to be reluctant to report Iran to the Security Council at this point, according to officials familiar with his position, who said the director general believes the Europeans and the Americans do not have a strategy for managing the issue there.

An outside expert said ElBaradei's resistance might reflect an institutional reluctance to cede even some control over the issue.

"If they pull the trigger and refer it to the U.N., it could be seen as an admission of failure," said Gary Milhollin, the director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, a research group in Washington.

But he added, "They're supposed to sound the warning bell. What the international community does about it is someone else's problem."