iran nuclear 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Iran risks losing influential friends and giving foes long-sought leverage to haul it before the UN Security Council. But it seems ready to defy the world in its drive to master technology that could be used to make nuclear weapons.
The issue is uranium enrichment, an activity that Iran formally has the right to and insists it needs to generate nuclear power. In ending a voluntary freeze on working with enrichment equipment Tuesday, Iran said it was in sync with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty allowing nations to run peaceful atomic programs and in good company with other countries possessing enrichment capabilities.
But whereas Canada, Japan and a handful of other nations have carried out enrichment programs for decades without a hint of controversy, Iran has hidden its activities for decades. It has turned to the same black market Libya shopped from in assembling basic elements of its now dismantled nuclear weapons program. It also separated plutonium and did other work that could be used to develop nuclear arms.
A nearly three-year probe by the International Atomic Energy Agency has turned up no "smoking gun" - but plenty of ammunition for the US and others that have long insisted Iran's nuclear activities are a front for a weapons program. They include drawings of what appear to be parts of missile warheads, imports of "dual-use" material and the drive to make nuclear fuel through enrichment, even though Iran is rich in oil and natural gas.
Iran's record in helping clear up ambiguities also is spotty, leaving even Mohamed Elbaradei, the IAEA's soft-spoken head, exasperated.
"I am running out of patience, the international community is running out of patience," he told the Britain's Sky News.
ElBaradei has been key in Iran's efforts to trip up Washington and its allies in their efforts to have Iran answer to the Security Council because he commands great respect among the nonaligned members of the IAEA's 35-nation board. Such open criticism of Iran by ElBaradei is thus bound to work against Iran.
Even more crucial are Russia and China, both IAEA board members and voting members of the Security Council.
Their past opposition to Security Council referral has led the Americans and their backers to tread carefully. They did not want to end up having Iran hauled before the council only to be hamstrung on sanctions or other punitive action because of vetoes from Moscow or Beijing.
But Chinese and Russian championing of Iran appears to be weakening at a time Teheran is under the gun on other fronts, including its president's anti-Israel statement, the country's human rights record and Western charges of terrorist support.
US officials say both Moscow and Beijing strongly urged Teheran to desist from resuming further enrichment related activity - and were chagrined when their appeals were ignored.
Such discontent is grist for the mill for Washington - and increasingly for key European countries that see their hopes of getting Iran to scrap enrichment plans in shambles.
With Iran making good Tuesday on its announcement to move closer to enrichment, Germany, France and Britain - which have negotiated with Iran for the European Union - were weighing canceling a last-ditch round of talks with Teheran's negotiators on January 18.
Once that happens, the next step is likely Security Council referral.
That path was cleared late last year, when the IAEA board found Iran in noncompliance of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty for keeping its uranium enrichment program secret for decades and conducting other work that could be used for a nuclear weapons program.
The Europeans, with American backing, then decided to give diplomacy another try in efforts to gain more international support for their stance.
That strategy appears to have worked.
Even before Iran started reactivating its enrichment equipment Tuesday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signaled that time was running out for Teheran. "When it's clear that negotiations are exhausted, we have the votes" to take Iran before the Security Council, she told reporters.
Herb Keinon adds:
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said that Israel was "encouraged by the international condemnation of the latest acts by the Iranian regime and hopes that this will lead to tangible diplomatic response from the organized international community."
Senior Israeli political and military officials have been putting out a dual message over the last few days: first that it is incumbent on the international community to send the Iranian nuclear issue to the UN Security Council for action, and second, that this is a problem for the whole world that should not be seen as an Iranian-Israeli issue.