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IAEA meets on Iran in Security Council prelude

By Super

Vienna, Mar 06: The UN atomic watchdog's board of governors meets today (Mar 06, 2006) to weigh Iran's snub of calls to curb nuclear activity, opening the way to possible UN Security Council action over concerns Tehran covertly seeks atom bombs.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Mohamed ElBaradei will submit a report to the 35-nation meeting saying Iran has largely ignored a resolution demanding that it take steps to defuse a crisis of confidence in its nuclear programme.

ElBaradei's report will be forwarded to the Security Council after the gathering as mandated by a board vote a month ago after three years of IAEA probes often parried by Tehran.

No new resolution was expected because the February motion, which at the insistence of Russia, China and developing states gave Iran a month to comply, was deemed enough for the Council to take up the issue.

ElBaradei will open the meeting with a speech at 0930 GMT.

When the Council might act remains unclear. The timing could hinge on the course of talks between Russia and Iran on Moscow's offer to enrich uranium on Tehran's behalf to prevent siphoning of nuclear materials into secret bombmaking on Iranian soil.

Iran's top nuclear negotiator yesterday repeated that its uranium-enrichment research drive was non-negotiable. He vowed Tehran would pursue industrial-scale nuclear fuel production if the Council tackles its case, potentially with sanctions.

Tehran seemed to be counting on opposition to any sanctions from Russia and China, both with vetoes on the Council.

John Bolton, US ambassador to the United Nations, warned Iran faced ''tangible and painful consequences'' if it pushed ahead with uranium enrichment and Washington would use ''all tools at our disposal'' to neutralise Tehran's atomic project.

But nuclear scientists estimate Iran remains some years away from mastering technology to enrich enough uranium for bombs.

ElBaradei felt the board vote to alert the Council was premature and could aggravate tensions, agency sources say.

Western diplomats say the IAEA has been too tolerant of what they call Iranian playing for time in hopes of staying the Council's hand while it accelerates uranium-enrichment efforts.

Iran says its nuclear programme is designed only to generate electricity for a growing economy. But Tehran obscured sensitive aspects of nuclear work from the IAEA for 18 years until 2003 and has publicly called for Israel's destruction.

Iran defies International pressure

Reports said Iran had disregarded the February resolution urging it to shelve all enrichment-related work and stop stonewalling IAEA inquiries to verify if the Islamic Republic's nuclear programme is solely peaceful or not. Instead, Iran is testing a cascade of 20 centrifuges, machines that convert uranium UF6 gas into fuel for atomic power reactors or, if purified to high levels, weapons.

He said Iran aims to begin installing 3,000 centrifuges later this year in what it calls research and development (R&D) that has nothing to do with industrial-scale fuel production, but which a suspicious West says could have no other motivation.

Iran has struggled to operate cascades -- or networks -- of the delicate centrifuges without breakdowns. But about 1,500 centrifuges running optimally could yield enough highly enriched uranium for one atomic bomb per year, experts say.

''The longer we wait to confront the threat Iran poses, the harder and more intractable it will become to solve,'' Bolton told the leading pro-Israel lobby group in the United States.

Trying to slow momentum towards Council intervention, Iran offered in talks with ''EU3'' Foreign Ministers on Friday to hold off industrial-scale fuel production for one to two years and restore short-notice IAEA inspections while continuing with enrichment R&D. The ministers countered by asking for a moratorium of around 10 years, which Iran rebuffed.

The Security Council's first step would probably be a presidential statement summoning Iran to heed IAEA resolutions.

A US official said Washington was considering seeking a 60- to 90-day deadline for Iran to cooperate or face action.

The Security Council could also consider endowing the IAEA with more intrusive, short-notice inspection powers.

Trade sanctions seem a more distant prospect given broad international reluctance to isolate the world's No. 4 oil exporter and not least the resistance of Russia and China, both with heavy trade stakes in the Islamic Republic.



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