The UN atomic watchdog was to meet yesterday with a Western drive for UN action against Iran's nuclear fuel program, that could be weapons-related, facing opposition from Russia and non-aligned countries, diplomats said.
The US, which claims that Iran is hiding nuclear weapons development under the guise of a peaceful civilian energy program, and the EU want the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to bring Iran before the Security Council. The Council could use measures ranging from resolutions to trade sanctions to try to get Tehran to stop making nuclear reactor fuel that can also be used to make bombs.
But Russia and China, which both have major business interests with Iran, and non-aligned states back Iran's claim to peaceful nuclear technology under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and oppose approving referral to the Security Council at this week's meeting in Vienna of the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors.
The board had last month called on Iran to halt uranium conversion, which it had resumed in early last month, breaking an agreement with EU negotiators Britain, Germany and France that led to talks on Iran guaranteeing its nuclear program is peaceful.
Conversion is the first step in enriching uranium for reactor fuel.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Saturday told the UN General Assembly in New York that Iran would not only continue the conversion work but "considers it within its legitimate rights to receive objective guarantees for uranium enrichment in the nuclear fuel cycle."
Ahmadinejad warned that if the "IAEA resorts to a language of force and threat with Iran, we will reconsider our entire approach to the nuclear issue."
This could involve moving ahead with actual enrichment and limiting IAEA surveillance of its activities.
Top US, British, French and German officials met in New York on Sunday and urged Iran to halt uranium conversion and immediately return to negotiations with the three European states, the so-called EU-3.
Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez told an OPEC meeting here that "the pressures on Iran are unacceptable and will definitely result in greater tension on the oil market."
Russia's President Vladimir Putin said Iran was cooperating "sufficiently" with the IAEA and warned that UN sanctions could cause new "problems," in an interview with US television broadcast on Sunday.
While the West has a slim majority to push the matter through the board, diplomats said this would be a disaster for a body that has always approved nuclear compliance matters by consensus.
"You can refer it by vote but then this will show very weak support," especially with nuclear powers Russia and China able to veto any Security Council measures, the diplomat said.
"What good does it do to refer to the Security Council with 15 abstentions, this is terrible, even 10 abstentions," the diplomat said about the eventual count from the 35-nation board since countries might abstain in order not to be seen in direct opposition with the West.
Diplomats said that the EU-3, which has been working on a draft resolution for the past two weeks, might try to gain time by proposing setting a deadline for Iran to halt the fuel work.
This would give Iran one last chance to comply, with another IAEA board meeting to be called within a few weeks. In New York Saturday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had said there was still "time for diplomacy."