Ending a voluntary two-year freeze, Iran removed IAEA seals on equipment at the Natanz uranium enrichment complex on 10 January. Although the country said 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 the atomic weapons capability it is thought to be only three years away from achieving.

Britain, France and Germany (the EU3) are now in agreement with the USA that Iran should be referred to the UN security council, but Iran has vowed to end voluntary cooperation with the IAEA and resume enrichment if that happens.

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, accused Iran of deliberately escalating the situation and said that Iran had “shattered the basis for negotiation,” later adding that the administration of president George Bush had “been very clear that the time has come for a referral of Iran to the security council.”

An emergency meeting of the IAEA board has been scheduled for 2 February. At the meeting, IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei will report on the situation. If the board were to reach agreement, the matter could be progressed to the UN Security Council which could then make a resolution in international law, impose economic sanctions, or as a last resort endorse military action.

However, 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, which would suffer a price hike as a result of sanctions; and Russia is building Iran’s first nuclear power reactor at the Bushehr site. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said: “The professional assessment of situation is of enormous importance. Thus, we will be guided by the IAEA assessments on February 2-3.”

Further talks are scheduled between Iran and the EU3 for 16 February, but one European diplomat described Iranian offers as “vacuous.”

Hossein Entezami, national security spokesman for Iran, emphasised the country’s defiant stance: “If our case goes to the Security Council, whether as a simple warning, to reinforce the head of the IAEA or even to decide on sanctions, the government will be obliged to put an end to its suspension of activities.”

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