Russia and China, Iran's nominal allies, yesterday supported the West in demanding that Tehran immediately mothball a recently revealed nuclear facility and comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions to halt its enrichment of uranium. The motion, overwhelmingly passed by the governing body of the UN's nuclear watchdog, was the starkest of warnings to the Islamic republic of its increasing international isolation.
The censure came in the first resolution against Iran in nearly four years by the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The rare endorsements by Moscow and Beijing reflected their growing impatience with Iran's procrastination over a two-month-old UN-brokered deal that would allay fears the Islamic republic's nuclear programme is aimed at weapons development. To Washington's delight, Russia said it expected Tehran to heed the IAEA decision.
"This is a signal that patience is running out. We can't continue talks for talks' sake," said Glyn Davies, the US envoy to the IAEA. Iran, which insists its nuclear ambitions are solely peaceful in nature, responded with characteristic defiance. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, its IAEA representative proclaimed that his country would resist "pressure, resolutions, sanctions and the threat of military attack".
He branded the resolution "hostile" and "confrontational" and warned it would damage Iran's "voluntary gestures" of co-operation with the IAEA. He was, however, quick to stress that Iran would not withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Tehran is under growing pressure to accept a uranium fuel exchange deal it agreed to in principle early last month. It requires Tehran to send abroad most of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium abroad in one batch by the end of the year to be further refined for use in an Iranian medical reactor. The vital confidence-building measure would delay Iran's potential to build a nuclear bomb by a year, experts say.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, had initially appeared to welcome the proposal, but it has come under attack from his opponents across Iran's political spectrum. Leading Iranian figures have rejected the deal, although Tehran has yet to respond formally to the IAEA. The West has also kept the door ajar, sensitive to the unprecedented divisions within Tehran's leadership ignited by Mr Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in June.
"The United States remains firmly committed to a peaceful resolution to international concerns over Iran's nuclear programme," Mr Davies said. "But our patience and that of the international community is limited." Britain was more explicit in spelling out the possible ramifications. "I believe the next stage will have to be sanctions if Iran does not respond to what is a very clear vote," Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, said.
Yesterday's IAEA resolution makes it more likely - but not guaranteed - that Russia and China will approve new UN Security Council sanctions against Iran. The IAEA measure was passed by a 25-3 margin. The resolution demanded that Iran freeze activities at its hitherto secret uranium enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom, and to confirm that it has no more hidden atomic facilities or clandestine plans for any. Tehran, however, may take more heed of a plaintive plea from the IAEA's outgoing chief, Mohammad ElBaradei. This week he said his inspectors had made no progress in their attempts to verify the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear programme.
He urged Iran to take advantage of his uranium exchange: "This is a unique and fleeting opportunity to reverse course from confrontation to co-operation and should not be missed." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org