VIENNA - World powers are making progress in narrowing their differences on how to respond to a UN watchdog report that aired intelligence suggesting Iran has worked on designing a nuclear weapon, Western diplomats said on Wednesday.
They said officials from the six big powers - the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain - were in intense negotiations on drafting a resolution on Iran for a Nov. 17-18 board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
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But they said it was still uncertain whether a text that all six could agree on would be ready in time for the two-day meeting of the 35-nation IAEA board, in view of remaining divisions between the Western states and Russia and China.
"I'm certainly more optimistic than I was yesterday. Progress is being made," one diplomat said.
Another Western diplomat estimated there was "more than an even chance" of an agreement.
There has been concern that if the powers cannot close ranks on isolating Iran to nudge it into serious negotiations, then Israel - which feels endangered by the nuclear aspirations of its arch-enemy - will attack it.
The IAEA report, which lent independent weight to Western allegations,
laid bare of a trove of intelligence suggesting it is seeking the
capability to "weaponize" nuclear material.
The unprecedented document exposed divisions among the big powers, with
Russia criticizing the report as politicized and Western states seizing
on it to try and ratchet up pressure on Tehran in the form of harsher
Western countries faced a dilemma ahead of this week's IAEA governors
meeting: press for a strongly-worded resolution and risk Russian and
Chinese opposition, or accept a weaker text in order to preserve big
Any board resolution would likely stop short of taking concrete action -
such as referring Iran once again to the United Nations Security
Council - in view of Russian and Chinese reluctance, diplomats said.
It is expected to express concern about Iran's nuclear work and call on
the country to address issues raised in last week's report by the IAEA,
the Vienna-based UN nuclear body, one of the Western diplomats said.
"I think we will get to a point where it (the text) is manageable to all
of us," the diplomat said. Another Western envoy spoke of "good
chances" an agreement would be reached.
The main goal of such a resolution would be to demonstrate a big power
common front and warn Iran about the need to engage in good-faith talks
about its nuclear program.
Iran, which says it is enriching uranium only for fuel for power plants
and not nuclear weapons, condemned the IAEA's findings as "unbalanced"
and "politically motivated" but has yet to offer detailed answers to the
Russia, which has significant trade ties with Iran, has been softer on
Tehran than the United States and the European Union, and has worked
with China to water down previous UN Security Council sanctions. China
is a big importer of Iranian oil.
Moscow has said the IAEA report contained no new evidence and was being
used to undercut efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the
long-running nuclear dispute with Iran.
The United States and its allies have made clear their intention to tighten sanctions on Iran after the IAEA report.
Despite such differences, US President Barack Obama said on Saturday he
and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev "reaffirmed our intention to work
and shape a common response so we can move Iran to follow its
international obligations when it comes to its nuclear program.