(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel officially welcomed on Saturday the resolution passed by the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council. The response came despite a clause in the resolution stating that "a solution to the Iranian issue would contribute to global nonproliferation efforts and to realizing the objective of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, including their means of delivery."
Diplomatic officials in Israel were unconcerned about the clause, which was intended as an indirect reference to Israel, saying that it had no real operative meaning and that the most important thing was to get the Iranian nuclear issue referred to the Security Council, something Israel had been advocating for months.
The International Atomic Energy Agency reported Iran to the UN Security Council in its Saturday meeting over fears that the Iranian regime wanted to produce nuclear arms. The move, which raised the stakes in the diplomatic confrontation already underway over the Iranian program, prompted Tehran to threaten immediate retaliation.
[Click here to read European draft resolution on Iran.]
Of the board's 35 member nations, 27 voted for referral, reflecting more than two years of intense lobbying by the United States and its allies to enlist broad backing for such a move. Washington critics Cuba, Venezuela and Syria voted against, while the remaining five abstained.
Still, the near consensus came at a price for Washington. Long an advocate of firm Security Council action against Iran, including possible political and economic sanctions, the Americans had to settle for what is essentially symbolic referral, for now.
In fact, agreement on the final wording of the text was achieved only after Washington compromised on a dispute with Egypt over linking fears about Tehran's atomic program to a WMD-free Middle East.
After years of opposition, Russia and China backed the referral last week, bringing support from other nations who had been waiting for their lead. But in return, Moscow and Beijing demanded that the Americans - along with France and Britain, the two other veto-wielding Security Council members - agree to let the Iran issue rest until March at the earliest. That is when the IAEA board meets again to review the agency's investigation of Iran's nuclear program and its compliance with board demands that it renounce uranium enrichment.
The Foreign Ministry said that Israel welcomed the IAEA decision and "hopes that the international community will send a clear and sharp message to Teheran that it must completely stop its nuclear program." The official statement made no reference to the clause calling for a nuclear-free zone.
Israel's long-standing position on its alleged nuclear capabilities was that it would not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, and that while it supported in principle the idea of a nuclear-free zone, this was unrealistic until there was peace in the region and Israel was not threatened with destruction by countries such as Iran.
The officials also pointed out that Israel felt it had a firm commitment from US President George W. Bush on this issue. Bush, in his famous letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from April 14, 2004, following Sharon's unveiling of the disengagement plan, wrote, "The United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to Israel's security, including secure, defensible borders, and to preserve and strengthen Israel's capability to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats."
This has been interpreted by Sharon as a US promise to back Israel when there are calls for it to dismantle its alleged nuclear potential.
Iran remained defiant following the IAEA decision, threatening to do precisely what referral was meant to prevent.
"As of Sunday, the voluntary implementation of the additional protocol and other cooperation beyond the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has to be suspended under the law," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a letter addressed to Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh.
The state television report of the order - which formally ends all restraint on uranium enrichment and curtails broad intrusive IAEA inspections - said it was issued to Aghazadeh as head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
Javed Vaeidi, deputy head of Iran's powerful National Security Council, also said that his country "now has to implement [a] fuller scale of enrichment."
Iran says it wants to enrich only to make nuclear fuel, but concerns that it might misuse the technology accelerated the chain of events that led to Saturday's referral to the UN Security Council, after Tehran took IAEA seals off enrichment equipment on January 10 and said it would resume small-scale activities.
Vaeidi also said a proposal to shift Iran's plan for large-scale enrichment of uranium to Russian territory, meant to alleviate international concern that Iran might use the process to develop a nuclear bomb, was dead.
Other Iranian comments reflected Tehran's fury at Washington.
The Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar describing US leaders as "terrorists and the main axis of evil in the world."
Najjar was responding to US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who at a high-level security conference in Munich, Germany, repeated Washington's view of Iran as the "world's leading state sponsor of terrorism."
European leaders expressed support for the referral, through a resolution drafted by France, Britain and Germany on behalf of the EU.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the vote showed "the international community's determination to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East."
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said through a spokesman that he hoped the vote would send "a clear signal to Iran that it must comply with the demands of the international community."
Russia's government urged Iran to "respond constructively" to the IAEA's decision, "including the restoration of a voluntary moratorium on all uranium enrichment works."
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the "convincing" vote sent a "clear signal to Tehran" to take account of international concerns.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said he was "very concerned and upset" about Iran's decision to retaliate.
The resolution links the decision to ask for Tehran's referral to the country's breaches of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and lack of confidence that it is not trying to make weapons.
The text expresses "serious concerns about Iran's nuclear program." It recalls "Iran's many failures and breaches of its obligations" to the nonproliferation treaty. It expresses "the absence of confidence that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes."
It requests IAEA Dir.-Gen. Mohamed ElBaradei to "report to the Security Council" with steps Iran needs to take to dispel suspicions about its nuclear ambitions.
These include that it return to freezing uranium enrichment; consider stopping construction of a heavy-water reactor that could be the source of plutonium; formally ratify the agreement allowing the IAEA greater inspecting authority and give the nuclear watchdog more power in its investigation of Iran's nuclear program.
The draft also asks that ElBaradei provide the Security Council with his report to the March 6 IAEA board session, along with any resolution that meeting might approve.
Chief British IAEA delegate Peter Jenkins urged Iran to heed the resolution before March, warning: "Should Iran fail to comply ... it will fall to the Security Council to bring additional pressure to bear."
His American counterpart, Gregory L. Schulte, indirectly acknowledged that the Security Council's hands were tied until March, saying: "We're not talking about sanctions at this stage."
But Straw, the British foreign secretary, said that if Iran failed to use the March window of opportunity, action by the UN Security Council would be "almost inevitable."
A senior European diplomat familiar with the issue said there was general agreement among the five permanent Security Council members that, if Iran remains defiant beyond March 6, the council would slowly increase pressure.
A first step could be a council declaration urging Iran to comply with the resolution, the diplomat said, demanding anonymity in exchange for discussing confidential strategy on Iran.