Daniel Dombey in Brussels, Guy Dinmore in Washington and Gareth Smyth in Tehran
The European Union is preparing to slow down its push to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council in the hope of winning support from Russia and China.
The EU, which is leading western diplomatic efforts on Iran’s nuclear programme, is now likely to offer Iran one “last chance” by delaying a substantive Security Council discussion of the file to March. It had originally hoped to secure a decisive referral as early as next week.
The extra time would meet objections from Russia and China that the EU and the US have been too hasty in seeking a speedy referral to New York.
A final decision on whether to drag out the process further will be taken after a meeting in London on Monday night of the foreign ministers of France, Germany, the UK, Russia, China and the US. The EU still wants further assurances that Moscow and Beijing will support them in March if there is a delay.
“We would prefer to go faster but if unity can be better guaranteed by waiting a little bit more, we should wait,” said a European diplomat.
Initially the EU had intended to use a specially convened meeting – starting next Thursday – of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, to move the dossier rapidly to New York.
Next week’s IAEA meeting is likely to agree the principle of referring Iran to New York, but leave open how the Security Council should subsequently proceed.
Such questions would only be decided in March, so giving Russia time to see whether it can strike a compromise with Iran in talks scheduled for February 16.
A senior US official told the FT the “proper course” was for the IAEA board to agree next week to take Iran to the Security Council. The US would seek consensus on the board, he said, leaving open the possibility of the Russian option of giving Iran more time.
“We will wait and see where the conversation is on Monday,” he added.
A slower approach would also allow Tehran to meet a deadline to give IAEA inspectors access to more sites and documents by the end of February. Mohamed ElBaradei, IAEA director general, has refused European and US pleas to move forward the deadline, arguing that he needs to observe “due process”.
However, an Iranian regime insider told the FT this week he believed that even a “soft” referral to the Security Council would still lead to Iran ending its voluntary acceptance of snap IAEA inspections and resuming plans for industrial-scale uranium enrichment.
“Last year, when Iran said it would resume conversion [of raw uranium into feeder fuel] at Isfahan, the Europeans thought we were bluffing,” he said. “Well, we weren’t.”
Uranium enrichment can produce weapons grade material, although Iran insists its programme is peaceful.