The United Nations atomic energy agency voted Saturday to condemn Iran’s nuclear activities, but the divisive vote was less than a clear victory for the U.S. administration’s effort to prevent Tehran from acquiring atomic weapons.
The agency found Iran in noncompliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and required that the country be reported to the U.N. Security Council at an unspecified date.
One country, Venezuela, voted against the U.S.-backed European resolution, and 12 nations, including Russia and China, abstained. India was one of 22 supporters, but only after being pressured by the United States.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a triumph, but it gives Iran a signal of our determination,” a European diplomat said.
Iran would be the fifth country to be referred to the Security Council for suspicions about the nature of its nuclear program. The others are North Korea, Libya, Romania and Iraq. The Security Council has the power to censure Iran and ultimately impose sanctions.
The resolution, approved by the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was the less severe of two draft measures circulated in recent days by the European Union in that it left open the timing of the Security Council referral.
The EU and United States proposed the softer resolution with the goal of gaining a consensus on the board, but they did not succeed. Votes are rare on the board, which prefers to approve resolutions by consensus. The last vote occurred in 2003 when North Korea was reported to the Security Council. However, that was a far less divisive issue, with just two countries abstaining.
Saturday’s action produced a mixed outcome both for Iran and for the European Union and United States. The U.S. had lobbied hard for more than two years for the Security Council referral, and its first choice had been to send Iran to the council immediately.
Nonetheless, the resolution approved Saturday was far stronger than any previous IAEA resolution on Iran.
“This is a significant step forward in the international effort to isolate Iran and a setback for Iran’s nuclear strategy,” R. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. undersecretary of State for political affairs, said in a conference call with reporters.
Gregory Schulte, the U.S. ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, said the majority support showed that “Iran’s activities, its pattern of deception and its confrontational approach are of great concern to the world community.”
However, the toughest battle -- actually referring Iran to the Security Council -- was left for another board meeting. Many countries, including some that voted in favor, said they did not want to take this step, said diplomats who attended the meeting.
Russia, whose vote was crucial because many other countries usually follow its lead, had strongly opposed an immediate referral because it could antagonize Iran. The Russian ambassador told the board that the reason Russia decided to abstain rather than vote “no” was because the resolution did not send Iran to the Security Council. China made a similar comment, saying it was in favor of negotiation, not referral.
Reporting a country to the Security Council, where it can be subject to punitive measures, singles it out as a bad actor in the international community and publicly embarrasses it. Iran has sought for 2 1/2 years to avoid a referral because it wants to be seen as a country in good standing.
The Security Council also has the power to enact economic sanctions, but in Iran’s case, these are unlikely; with oil prices hovering at $70 a barrel, many countries are dependent on an uninterrupted supply of Iranian oil.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the IAEA, expressed disappointment at the division on the board. “I was deeply disturbed by the lack of any mention of arms control and disarmament at the [U.N.] summit in New York last week. And today I see also a divided board. That is not the way I should hope we would continue to proceed,” he said.
Iran underscored that point when a member of its delegation, Javad Vaeidi, said after the vote: “There is no consensus on the way to go forward.... The United States and the United Kingdom left no screws unturned to forge consensus here. They failed.”
In his statement to the IAEA board after the vote, Iranian Ambassador Mohammed Mehdi Akhondzadeh took a restrained tone, refuting the resolution’s claims and refraining from threats to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or reduce U.N. inspectors’ access to the country. That was a departure from the country’s tone over the last couple of weeks, when Iranian diplomats in New York and Tehran suggested that referring Iran to the Security Council would prompt it to take drastic steps.
Akhondzadeh made an oblique reference to the possibility that the country would cease voluntary confidence-building measures, a signal that it could restart a pilot plant where it is testing uranium enrichment equipment.
Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki was more blunt, denouncing the resolution as “political, illegal and illogical” in remarks broadcast on Iran’s state-run television today.
Some experts viewed the decision to defer the date of Iran’s Security Council referral as a license to the Iranians to move forward with their nuclear program.
“The administration’s strategy has divided the board and probably the Security Council, and that’s going to make it harder, not easier, to get Iran to stop enriching uranium,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Assn.
Gary Samore of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation agreed. “The Iranians can have some satisfaction because their strategy has broken the consensus on the board.... The Iranians will read this vote as allowing them to continue to proceed with conversion without facing immediate referral,” said Samore, a nuclear nonproliferation specialist on the National Security Council under President Clinton.
Over the last two years, the Iranians have been in negotiations with Britain, France and Germany for a deal that would give the country economic and technological aid in exchange for the suspension of its nuclear program. During the talks, Iran voluntarily put a moratorium on all its nuclear work, but when the country broke off negotiations with the three EU countries in August, it resumed converting uranium yellowcake into a gas that can be further purified for use in nuclear reactors as well as weapons.
Iran says its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes such as generating electricity, but because it kept its program hidden for 18 years from the IAEA, Western countries and others suspect that it may have covert plans to build an atomic weapon.
Iran has refused to give the agency’s experts full information about its efforts to obtain centrifuges to purify uranium; it has denied IAEA inspectors access to scientists and others involved in nuclear activities; and it has made it all but impossible for the inspectors to examine sensitive sites such as the military facility at Parchin, where experts believe Iran may be developing a nuclear weapon system.
Experts disagree on how long it would take Iran to make a bomb, but say it would be at least several years and perhaps more than a decade.
Saturday’s vote made clear that there was widespread unease with Iran’s activities. Even Russia, which has defended Iran against the West’s claims, said that the resolution was a signal to Iran to increase its cooperation with the IAEA.
Venezuela’s delegation said it opposed the measure because it was given insufficient time to consult with officials in Caracas. However, it was Venezuela that called for a roll-call vote, putting everyone on the record.
Perhaps the clearest sign of the discomfort caused by the weeks of fraught negotiation leading up to the vote were distilled in India’s position: The world’s largest democracy voted for the resolution but also said it disagreed with many elements of it.
“ ‘We do not find Iran’s activities a threat to international peace and security,’ ” India told the board, according to a diplomat in the room. India also explained that it supported the resolution because it left time for further negotiations and a possible solution, the diplomat said.
However, U.S. officials acknowledged that political pressure also played a role. The United States lobbied India hard, offering it the carrot of a sweeping agreement on nuclear energy cooperation with the U.S., including help with the construction of nuclear plants.
Rubin reported from Vienna and Marshall from Washington.