Europe's leading nations pressed Monday for an emergency meeting of the UN atomic watchdog in two weeks over Iran's nuclear program, bringing the prospect of referral to the UN Security Council a step closer.
Europe seems to be losing patience with Iran's president
After talks in London that also included officials from China, Russia and United States, the EU troika of Britain, France and Germany said they wanted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to meet on Feb. 2-3.
"The EU-3 informed the other participants of their intention to call for an extraordinary IAEA board of governors meeting on the second and third of February," a British Foreign Office spokesman told AFP.
The London gathering followed Iran's announcement last week that it was to resume research into uranium enrichment, sparking worldwide concern.
Iran insists its nuclear program is purely for civilian energy purposes, but highly enriched uranium can also be used as the raw material for nuclear weapons -- something the West fears Tehran is secretly trying to develop.
Lesser measure more likely
The IAEA governors could decide to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for contravening nuclear non-proliferation agreements and IAEA resolutions, in a possible prelude to sanctions. However, a lesser measure such as a formal order for Tehran to halt nuclear research appears more likely, with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw saying earlier Monday that there was no need to "rush" towards sanctions.
Russia and China, both of which have close trade and energy ties with Iran, are also seen as notably less keen on sanctions than the United States and the European Union.
Protesters demonstrated during talks in Berlin last week
Over the weekend, Tehran declared that it was "not scared" by the prospect of UN referral.
The Foreign Office spokesman said all sides in Monday's talks had expressed "serious concern" about Iran's move but talked only of "a thorough exchange of views on the role of the UN Security Council" in enforcing the IAEA's views. "The participants remain committed to a diplomatic solution," the spokesman added.
A European diplomatic source, speaking under cover of anonymity, had earlier Monday described referral to the Security Council as a certainty.
"The Russians are agreed now. They have changed their position," said the source. "The Chinese are still a little hesitant, but effectively a Security Council referral is now a done deal."
Oil prices rise
Fears over the rumbling crisis have sent global oil prices rising. In London, the price of North Sea crude oil jumped 76 cents to $63.02 per barrel in Monday's trade. US markets were closed for a holiday.
The diplomatic source, however, stressed that sanctions, while possible, were by no means a certainty. "There are plenty of examples where a matter is referred to the Security Council and the Security Council takes action and that action is followed without sanction," the source said.
In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin cautioned against taking "abrupt" steps over Iran and stressed that a long-mooted compromise plan to enrich uranium for Iran on Russian territory was still possible.
Putin and Merkel in Moscow on Monday
"The Iranian foreign ministry, notably, has said that it does not rule out accepting our proposal," Putin said after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Britain, France and Germany, known as the EU-3, have spearheaded the bloc's negotiations with Iran, trying to woo the Islamic republic with pledges of more aid and trade in return for greater candor on its nuclear program. On Thursday, the troika, furious at Iran breaking the seals on nuclear facilities to resume fuel work, declared the talks were at a "dead end" and said they would seek an IAEA meeting to debate referral.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, en route to Liberia, said Monday she wanted to see the board of the IAEA convene "as soon as possible."
"The problem with waiting for the regular meeting in March or waiting for a long time is that I think the Iranians will try to take advantage of it to start to throw chaff now and to obfuscate" on its intentions, she said.