Iran faces possible U.N. sanctions over nuclear program

The US is pushing stronger action, but others want only mild measures.

The UN Security Council is weighing a vote later this week to impose fresh sanctions on Iran over its uranium enrichment program. The UN's watchdog agency has warned that the program, which Iran calls peaceful, may still include a military component. This week, the International Atomic Energy Agency heard evidence that Iran had secretly developed nuclear arms after 2003.

The IAEA assessment, issued last Friday, provoked controversy because United States intelligence agencies concluded last year that Iran had stopped a nuclear weapons program in 2003. Iran denounced documents submitted to the IAEA as "forgeries."

The US has been pushing for tougher UN sanctions on Iran and the Bush administration has long argued that Iran is trying to build atomic weapons. Still, opposition from other permanent members of the UN Security Council is expected, and the outcome is likely to be a mild range of measures that rebuke Iran.

In its Friday report, the IAEA said that Iran had continued to enrich uranium in defiance of the Security Council resolutions, the Associated Press reports. The report also said that previous issues that raised suspicion had been largely resolved, but questions remained over possible military applications that Iran, so far, has been unable to answer satisfactorily.

The BBC says that material presented to the IAEA's 35-nation board on Monday included designs for a nuclear warhead and information about how it would fit onto a missile. The dates of these purported weapons experiments went "beyond 2003," according to Simon Smith, the British representative to the agency.

Rasoul Movahedian, the Iranian ambassador to Britain, told the Financial Times that the US was trying to sabotage its cooperation with the IAEA. He said that spurious documentary claims of weapons plans were being sprung on Iran at the last minute, contrary to an earlier agreement with the nuclear agency.

The Washington Post reports that representatives from major powers met Monday to discuss strategy on Iran, including possible new European-favored incentives for cooperation. Britain, China, the US, Russia, France, and Germany agreed to push for a UN Security Council resolution this week to authorize the third set of sanctions since 2006, though unanimity is unlikely because of differences in the 15-member council. The five permanent members have veto power; otherwise nine votes are sufficient for the resolution.

The six powers that met in Washington yesterday are concerned that any dissent on the Security Council would lead Iran to believe it has begun to crack international resolve, officials present at the talks said.

Libya, a nonpermanent member of the Security Council, has publicly expressed its doubts about supporting the UN resolution, and Western diplomats believe that South Africa, Vietnam, and Indonesia may also dissent, Reuters reports. Minor changes may be made to the final resolution, but milder sanctions seem unlikely at this stage.

The Iranian envoy to the UN has already rejected the proposed sanctions. The ambassador, Mohammad Khazee, said he saw no reason to suspect its uranium enrichment, reports Bloomberg. The proposed UN text calls for countries to monitor financial dealings with Iran, bar the travel of designated officials, and inspect Iranian cargo that might contain banned goods.

The New York Times reports that Mr. Khazee denied that Iranians would be deterred by additional sanctions, saying: "We have learned to live with them." He took aim at the documents supplied to the IAEA by Western sources that appeared to show a warhead that could carry a nuclear device. He said a terrorist group had forged the documents and claimed that those named as involved in the program had no such access, despite the assertions of Western powers.

Asia Times Online says in an editorial that the IAEA has set the bar unreasonably high by effectively asking Iran to prove the absence of its alleged military programs. Academic Kaveh Afrasiabi writes that the US may be using "systematic disinformation" against Iran, as it did over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. He argues that the IAEA, which is led by director-general Mohammad ElBaradei, has exceeded its legal mandate.

In an editorial, Israel's daily newspaper Haaretz says UN sanctions won't have much effect on a defiant Iran and that the real question for Israel is the position of the next US president on the Iranian nuclear issue. Israel believes that Iran could obtain a nuclear weapon within the next two years, in contrast to the US intelligence estimate that such a threat is several years away. As long as Iran is developing fissionable material and has missile capability, the threat remains, it argues.

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