Tehran has pledged to halt all uranium enrichment, but Washington still might seek U.N. Security Council sanctions.
By Sonya Yee, Times Staff Writer
VIENNA - Despite a pledge by Tehran on Monday to suspend all uranium enrichment activities, the United States warned that it reserved the right to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council, insisting that the Islamic Republic was trying to build nuclear weapons.
A resolution adopted by the International Atomic Energy Agency's governing board sealed a mid-November deal brokered by Britain, France and Germany for Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment-related activities and avoid referral to the Security Council, where it could face sanctions.
The United Nations agency's head, Mohamed ElBaradei, said the resolution was an "important milestone" and called on Iran to honor the agreement.
"There has been a confidence deficit, and that confidence needs to be restored," he said after the board meeting Monday. "The ball is in Iran's court."
Iran nearly scuttled the European deal Thursday by insisting it be allowed to continue operating 20 centrifuges for research purposes. Centrifuges enrich uranium for power generation or, if highly enriched, for nuclear weapons.
But Iranian negotiators dropped the demand late Sunday after winning concessions in the resolution, which was originally drafted by the three European nations. One key change emphasized that the suspension was a "voluntary, non-legally binding, confidence-building measure."
The resolution requests the IAEA to continue monitoring Iranian nuclear activities but does not require ElBaradei to issue regular reports to the board.
The U.S. says it is "essential" that ElBaradei report on Tehran's case before the next board meeting in March, given "Iran's history of nuclear deception."
Jackie Sanders, head of the U.S. delegation, noted in a statement to the board that "any member of the United Nations may bring to the attention of the Security Council any situation that might endanger the maintenance of international peace and security.
"The United States reserves all of its options with respect to Security Council consideration of the Iranian nuclear weapons program," she said.
ElBaradei had reported to the board that the agency could account for all of Iran's declared nuclear materials, but that it couldn't rule out clandestine activities.
Sanders argued that this and a host of unanswered questions made it clear that the agency lacked the ability to "offer the necessary assurances that Iran is not attempting to produce nuclear material for weapons at a hidden location."
A Western security source who monitors Iran and the IAEA also said the report acknowledged the agency's lack of legal authority to conduct the intensive investigations required.
"There is no option but to transfer the issue to the Security Council with the purpose of extending the IAEA's authority to enable more penetrative safeguards," the official said.
Iran, which contends that it seeks only to produce nuclear energy, hailed the resolution as a U.S. defeat.
"This resolution which was approved by the IAEA was a definite defeat for our enemies who wanted to pressure Iran by sending its case to the U.N. Security Council," Iranian President Mohammad Khatami told Iranian state radio, according to Reuters.
In Vienna, Iranian delegation member Sirous Nasseri hailed the "commencement of a new phase" in negotiations.
The agreement allows the enrichment suspension deal to remain in place while Iran and the European nations negotiate a long-term deal in talks scheduled to begin Dec. 15.
The Europeans aim to make the current deal permanent by offering Iran assistance with peaceful nuclear technologies, trade incentives and, potentially, membership in the World Trade Organization.
A similar deal reached by the two sides last year collapsed, and Tehran resumed development of its enrichment program.
Nasseri indicated that the current suspension was conditional on Iran's satisfaction with the European offer. He said the ban would "continue while negotiations move forward," and warned that it was time for the Europeans "to start delivering on their end of the deal."
At the White House, Press Secretary Scott McClellan spoke cautiously about Monday's developments.
"We have seen over the course of the last year and a half that Iran has failed to comply time and again with their commitments," he said. "What's important and critical now is the implementation and verification.
"If there are violations of those agreements, or noncompliance with those agreements," he added, "then that matter will be reported back to the IAEA members to consider additional action."