The US and EU were seeking Chinese and Russian support for robust diplomatic steps to curb Iran's nuclear program in talks among UN Security Council powers that began yesterday.
Iran's resumption of research that could advance a quest for civilian atomic energy or bombs has sparked a flurry of Western diplomacy in pursuit of a vote by the UN nuclear watchdog to refer Iran to the council for possible sanctions.
Moscow, with a US$1 billion stake building Iran's first atomic reactor, and Beijing, reliant on Iranian oil for its surging economy, have previously blocked such a move at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said yesterday that it is up to Iran to reassure the international community that it really is not pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. Straw underlined the danger of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists.
"This is why the international community's stand against Iran's continued non-compliance with its Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations and successive resolutions of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency is so important," he said.
"The onus is on Iran to act to give the international community confidence that its nuclear program has exclusive peaceful purposes -- confidence, I'm afraid, that has been sorely undermined by its history of concealment and deception," he said.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Russia yesterday for her first visit to Moscow as Germany's leader. High on the agenda in her talks with President Vladimir Putin were European efforts to find a common approach with Russia to Iran, after Tehran's decision to resume uranium enrichment activities, a major theme of Merkel's meeting in Washington last week with US President George W. Bush.
Russia has warned Iran it could lose Moscow's support unless it suspended the fuel research it resumed last week.
China, however, said resorting to the Security Council might "complicate the issue," citing Iran's threat to hit back by halting snap UN inspections of its atomic plants.
Russia and China are veto-wielding permanent members of the council.
Diplomats said the London meeting of permanent Council members and Germany was aimed at reaching a consensus before an emergency IAEA board meeting the West wants next month.
"There's some confidence that Russia is increasingly leaning towards the EU3-US position and will not block referral," said a diplomat with the EU trio of Germany, France and Britain that last week called off a moribund dialogue with Iran.
But he said China looked more difficult to persuade.
"The crucial thing for us now is to gauge where Russia and China are on this matter," said another EU3 diplomat.
"It is a very fluid situation. This meeting is about next steps on Iran's nuclear program. Sanctions may be addressed briefly or in depth; it's hard to say at this stage," the diplomat said.
If the Western powers find Russia and China ready to back referral, the talks could yield a date for an IAEA board meeting well ahead of its next scheduled session on March 6.
US Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph was in Vienna for talks with IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei and other diplomats, a US spokesman said.