The international confrontation over Iran’s nuclear research has grown still more serious. Britain, France and Germany (the EU3) are now in agreement with the USA that Iran should be referred to the UN security council, and Iran has vowed to end voluntary cooperation with the IAEA and resume enrichment if that happens.

The official Iranian news agency reported that Manuchehr Mottaki, Iran’s foreign minister, had said: “The government will be obliged to end all of its voluntary measures if sent to the UN council.”

Emerging from a meeting in Berlin, Germany, the EU3 ministers declared that negotiation had reached a “dead end” and called for an emergency meeting of the IAEA board, which could lead to referral. The US secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice, said that Iran had “shattered the basis for negotiation.” She accused Iran of deliberately escalating the situation.

Ending a voluntary two-year freeze, Iran removed IAEA seals on equipment at the Natanz uranium enrichment complex on 10 January. Although the country says it has no interest in atomic weapons, and will not enrich any uranium for the time being, the West will not tolerate even the possibility of the Islamic theocracy gaining an atomic weapons capability.

However, Iran has the right under international law to enjoy the benefits of peaceful nuclear energy, and the development of nuclear power and a domestic nuclear fuel cycle has become a matter of national pride.

If the IAEA board concludes in favour of referral, and then if the security council finds a consensus against Iran, it is possible the country could face economic sanctions. However, a more likely first move would be a security council demand for Iran to return to the negotiating table. Sanctions could be considered, probably to limit the country’s substantial trade in oil and gas, if Iran were to fail to comply.

But much diplomacy must be made before reaching the point of sanctions. Two of the five permanent members of the security council that could veto any move have yet to condemn Iran: China imports 13% of its oil from Iran and would be less than keen to impose economic sanctions on that resource; and Russia is helping Iran to complete the first Bushehr PWR unit.

3,700 Russian nuclear workers are currently in Iran working on the Bushehr project. A spokesman for one of the contractors involved said that there were no grounds to suspend the work, although media reports have suggested that an evacuation plan for Russian personnel has been prepared in case of a military assault on the construction site.

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