U.N. Impasse Continues over Iran Nuke Program

A diplomatic impasse continues at the U.N. Security Council over what steps should be taken in response to Iran's refusal to give up its uranium enrichment program. Russia and China are resisting efforts to set an agenda that could lead to sanctions against Tehran, which insists it is pursuing a nuclear power program and not developing nuclear weapons.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Now to Iran. For two weeks, through this weekend, diplomats at the U.N. Security Council have been discussing Iran's nuclear program, but so far the council has been unable to act. The talks have focused on the most mild of Security Council actions, a presidential statement, but the permanent members of the council can't agree on what it should say. NPR's Mike Shuster has more.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

When the International Atomic Energy Agency sent the Iran case to the U.N. Security Council earlier this month, the Bush Administration made it clear it wanted a series of steps taken quickly. First, a presidential statement calling on Iran to stop it's its uranium enrichment activities. Then, assuming Iran does not comply, a series of formal resolutions increasing the pressure on Iran, eventually reaching a stage of possible economic sanctions.

But so far, there is only impasse in the Security Council, prompting Secretary of State Rice to express what sounded like frustration at the slow pace of talks.

Secretary of State CONDOLEEZZA RICE (United States): There is no time for delay in taking up this issue. There shouldn't be any delay, there can't be any stalling, the international community has got to act.

SHUSTER: The problem is that the permanent members of the Security Council are not in agreement on what to do. Specifically, the U.S., Great Britain and France cannot get Russia and China to agree on the wording of a statement which would be issued by the Security Council. Russia especially opposes economic sanctions, does not want to set a timetable in motion that could lead to sanctions, and wants further negotiations with Iran. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, was asked a few days ago when the council might act.

Mr. JOHN BOLTON (U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.): Well, as I've said before, I don't make predictions about timing in the Security Council, because it's not likely to be successful, and when I have in the past, I've always been wrong, so no predictions on timing.

SHUSTER: It appears that Britain and France, with the support of Germany, which is not on the council, have concluded they can't bring the Russians around without further negotiations with Iran, without another attempt to convince Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment and consider alternative means to acquire non-military nuclear technology. That was the recent explicit message from Britain's Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw.

Mr. JACK STRAW (British Foreign Secretary): Security Council involvement does not mean the end of our efforts to find a negotiated solution, but rather marks a new phase in our diplomatic efforts. If Iran is prepared to respect the requests of the IAEA in full, then the door to a negotiated solution will reopen.

SHUSTER: But for the moment, Iran is pressing ahead on uranium enrichment. Evidence has emerged that Iran has assembled what is known as a cascade of 164 gas centrifuges at a pilot enrichment project at Natanz. This is not operational yet, but if Iranian engineers do start it up, it will signal they have advanced from the purely experimental stage of uranium enrichment into small scale production. Abbas Milani, who heads the Iran Democracy Project at Stanford University, believes Tehran is doing its utmost to take advantage of the Security Council's indecision.

Mr. ABBAS MILANI (Director of Iranian Studies, Stanford University): They're using the space that Russia and China are giving them, very, very actively to create a reality on the ground and then make that the basis of the argument that this is already a fait accompli and cannot go back.

SHUSTER: Iran has also stated it intends to construct 3,000 centrifuges at the Natanz facility at the end of this year. For these reasons, the Bush Administration is maintaining a firm stance in talks at the U.N. Under-Secretary of State Nicholas Burns argued recently that only continued pressure with the threat of sanctions can convince Tehran to shift direction.

Mr. NICHOLAS BURNS (U.S. Under Secretary of State): Iran is not going to want to isolate itself. It's not a country like North Korea, which seems to thrive in isolation, it's a country that needs investment, it needs the kind of diplomatic ties that have been produced between Iran in some countries. And I think what's at stake is the normalcy of those relations with part of the rest of the world should Iran not respond to this united message that has been put forward.

SHUSTER: There may be unity around the belief that Iran with a nuclear weapon is a danger, but so far little unity on how to prevent that from happening.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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