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UN Security Council powers meet on Iran atom crisis
The United States and European Union hope to enlist Russian and Chinese support for robust diplomatic steps against Iran over its contentious nuclear programme when the U.N. Security Council powers meet on Monday.
Iran's resumption of research that could be used for either civilian atomic energy or bombs has sparked a flurry of Western diplomacy in pursuit of a vote by the U.N. nuclear watchdog to refer Iran to the Council for possible sanctions.
Moscow, with a $1 billion stake building Iran's first atomic reactor, and Beijing, reliant on Iranian oil for its burgeoning economy, have so far blocked a consensus for referral within the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors.
But Russia warned Iran after it restarted fuel research last week that it could lose Moscow's support unless it suspended the work. China, however, said resorting to the Security Council might "complicate the issue", citing Iran's threat to hit back by halting snap U.N. inspections of its atomic plants.
Diplomats said the London meeting of permanent Council members and Germany was aimed at reaching a consensus before an emergency IAEA board meeting the West wants next month.
"There's some confidence that Russia is increasingly leaning towards the EU3-U.S. position and will not block referral," said a diplomat with the EU trio of Germany, France and Britain that last week called off dragging dialogue with Iran.
But he said China still looked more difficult to persuade.
If the Western powers found Russia and China ready to back referral, the talks could yield a date for an IAEA board meeting well ahead of its next scheduled session on March 6.
Iran says its nuclear research and development project is meant solely to feed an electricity-needy economy. Years of IAEA investigations have found no firm evidence to the contrary.
But Iran's concealment of nuclear activities for almost 20 years until it was disclosed by dissident exiles in 2002, a spotty record of cooperation with the IAEA since, and calls for wiping out Israel have fired Western resolve to rein in Tehran.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei was quoted as saying in a Newsweek magazine interview he could not exclude the possibility Iran might be harbouring a secret nuclear arms programme distinct from activities known to his agency.
"If they have the nuclear material and they have a parallel weaponisation program along the way, they are really not very far -- a few months -- from a weapon," he said.
"We still need to assure ourselves through access to documents, individuals [and] locations that we have seen all that we ought to see and that there is nothing fishy, if you like, about the programme," ElBaradei added.
Asked if Iran was buying time to build a bomb, he replied: "That's why I said we are coming to the litmus test in the next few weeks."
Western officials say Iran stepped over the "red line" last week by stripping IAEA seals from equipment that purifies uranium, a key component in nuclear power or, if enriched to a higher level, in weaponry.
A German government official told reporters ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel's trip to Moscow on Monday that the EU3 was amenable to reviving its talks with Iran -- but only if it once again suspended its fuel development programme.
An EU3 diplomat in Berlin said Merkel hoped to get an assurance from Russian President Vladimir Putin that Moscow would not obstruct Security Council referral and would form a common front with the EU and United States in handling Iran.
But OPEC giant Iran zeroed in on the weakness of Western tough talk by saying any crackdown could drive up world oil prices, which would batter industrialised economies.
Iran is the world's fourth largest exporter of crude oil.
Tehran also said only diplomacy, not threats of Council referral, could defuse its standoff with the West.
U.S. Republican and Democratic senators said Washington may ultimately have to undertake a military strike to deter Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week using force against Iran was not an option "at this point".