Iran wins reprieve on UN sanctions with Russian offer

By Anne Penketh, Diplomatic Editor
Published: 22 November 2005

Iran has won more time in its standoff with the West over its suspect nuclear programme after European Union countries agreed to allow consideration of a Russian compromise that would avert a referral to the UN Security Council at this stage for possible sanctions.

The governing board of the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, meets in Vienna on Thursday and had been expected to discuss referring Tehran to the Security Council. However with the IAEA chief and the US now backing the Russian attempt to broker a diplomatic solution with the Iranian regime, it now appears that plans by Britain, France and Germany to push for a referral have now been shelved.

The new hardline regime of President Mohamed Ahmadinejad rejected out of hand in the summer proposals from the three EU countries that would have barred Iran from any nuclear fuel cycle activities, amid fears that the country could be working on a nuclear bomb. Iran denies any such intentions, saying that its nuclear intentions are peaceful, and insists on its right to enrich uranium under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Under the Russian compromise, Iran would be allowed to continue to convert uranium into gas at its Isfahan facility, but the most critical stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, uranium enrichment, would be transferred to Russia as part of a joint venture. Such a plan for the enrichment of uranium is already envisaged for Iran's civilian nuclear reactor at Bushehr which is being built with Russian help. It is expected that the IAEA director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, would travel to Iran to discuss the Russian compromise.

Iran is still expected to face criticism from the IAEA board, in the light of a report from Mr ElBaradei, whose inspectors have obtained documents from Tehran showing that the Iranians had obtained a blueprint from the AQ Khan black market network in Pakistan on how to build the core of a nuclear warhead.

However, the decision to pursue the Russian proposals effectively defuses the crisis at a time when the US is backing a diplomatic, rather than military, track in dealing with Iran. "We're encouraging Iran to get back to the negotiating table with the EU-three at this point," said a state department spokesman, Sean McCormack, last night.

Postponement also allows more time to assess the new government in Tehran, which has created widespread suspicions and unease about its intentions since taking office in August. Mr Ahmadinejad risked diplomatic isolation for his country last month by calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map".

Its outgoing ambassador to London, Seyed Mohamed Hussein Adeli, hosted a farewell dinner at his residence last night after being sacked along with three other pro-reform ambassadors - in Berlin, Paris, and Kuala Lumpur - by the incoming government. A litmus test for the new administration will be whether Mr Adeli's political and economic think tank, which he is founding with other Iranian moderates, will be allowed to flourish in Iran under the hardliners.