WASHINGTON—The world's leading powers on Monday agreed that Iran should resume its freeze on research into uranium enrichment, a process that can be used to produce fuel for nuclear weapons.
But the United States, Britain, Germany and France failed to persuade Russia and China to join them in bringing Iran before the United Nations Security Council for violating the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the global pact to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.
The council has the power to punish Iran with economic sanctions. But that could jeopardize the enormous commercial interests that Russia and China have in Iran, the world's fourth-largest oil producer.
Nevertheless, the Europeans told their American, Russian and Chinese counterparts in talks in London that they'll call an emergency session of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-member board of governors in early February for a vote on reporting Iran to the Security Council.
The Europeans' decision appeared to have been encouraged by comments on Monday by Russian President Vladimir Putin that his government had moved very close to Western views in the growing crisis.
"The UK, France and Germany informed the other participants of their intention to call for an extraordinary board of governors meeting on the 2-3 of February," said a British Foreign Office statement.
Senior diplomats from the United States, France, Britain, China and Russia—the veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council—and Germany met in London a week after Iran ended a more than two-year freeze in uranium enrichment work.
"There was serious concern at the meeting about Iranian moves to restart enrichment-related activities contrary to the appeals of the international community not to do so," said the British Foreign Office statement. "There was also agreement on the importance of Iran returning to the full suspension and negotiating process."
Iranian experts broke IAEA seals at three sites, including at a key research facility at Natanz, in central Iran, and they told the Vienna, Austria-based U.N. watchdog agency that they planned to enrich small amounts of uranium.
Iran says it wants to be able to produce low-enriched uranium for civilian power plants. But the same process can be used to make highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, which is what the Bush administration charges is Iran's real goal.
The administration and its European allies had hoped to use the London talks to persuade Russia and China to add their weight to what's expected to be a majority on the IAEA Board of Governors that backs referring Iran to the Security Council.
But the British Foreign Office statement made it clear that Russia and China balked.
"These discussions will continue with the aim of reaching agreement on the way forward," the statement said. "The participants remain committed to a diplomatic solution."
Energy-hungry China, which is heavily dependent on Iranian oil and gas supplies, has cautioned against any precipitous moves.
Russian officials have indicated that they're losing patience with Iran's hard-line leaders, and Western diplomats believe that Moscow would abstain from, rather than contest, a vote to refer Iran to the Security Council.
Speaking after meeting Monday in Moscow with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin said that his government and its "European and American partners" held similar positions on Iran.
But he was quoted by the state-run RIA Novosti news agency as cautioning that "we should act very carefully in this sphere."
He said Iran appeared to remain open to a compromise in which uranium for Iranian civilian power plants would be enriched in Russia, a proposal that's backed by the United States and the European Union, according to RIA Novosti.
Russia is thought to wield considerable influence with Iran because of the two countries' commercial ties.
Russian companies are completing a $800 million nuclear power plant at Bushehr, hope to build more in a $10 billion deal and are seen by Iranian officials as potential partners in modernizing Iran's decrepit oil industry infrastructure.
Moreover, Moscow is Iran's top weapons supplier and recently signed a $700 million deal to sell 29 air defense missile systems to Tehran.
Iranian leaders insist that they have the right to enrich uranium under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Tehran, however, has acknowledged concealing its enrichment program, including technology bought from an international black-market ring, from IAEA oversight for 18 years in violation of the treaty.
The IAEA Board of Governors in September declared Iran in breach of the treaty for failing to disclose all aspects of its nuclear program. But the board delayed referring it to the Security Council.
Iranian leaders have dismissed the threat of U.N. sanctions and threatened to halt cooperation with the IAEA if their country is reported to the Security Council.
The Novosti report on Putin's meeting with Merkel is available at:
A BBC interview Monday with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is at:
http://www.fco.gov.uk/servlet/Front?pagename(equal sign)OpenMarket/Xcelerate/ShowPage&c(equal sign)Page&cid(equal sign)1007029391629&a(equal sign)KArticle&aid(equal sign)1136904127168
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAN-NUCLEAR
Need to map