The confrontation between Iran and the West deepened yesterday as both sides hardened their positions over the Islamic republic's nuclear programme.
The foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany announced that more than two years of negotiations with Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons programme were at a "dead end" and they urged the UN nuclear watchdog to call an emergency board meeting to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions, accusing Tehran of a "documented record of concealment and deception". Diplomats said the talks at the Vienna headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would probably be held in the first week of next month.
The Iranian leadership stood firm in response. "We are not worried about our nuclear case being sent to the Security Council," Gholamreza Rahmani-Fazli, the deputy secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said on Iranian television. Earlier, the former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani said on radio that the stand off had "become very serious and has reached its climax". He said Iran intended to press on with its nuclear programme and had no intention of complying with " colonial taboos".
Western fears that Iran is bent on developing a nuclear weapon have been fuelled by statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since his election in June last year. He has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" , and Iran has taken steps since August to reverse commitments to the international community on freezing its uranium-related activities. The most serious step came on Tuesday, when the Iranians broke UN seals at its uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, which can be used to produce weapons-grade material.
As a result, Iran is faced with the real possibility of being referred to the UN Security Council for sanctions for the first time after more than two years of talking to the Europeans about curbing its nuclear activities.
Iran insists that its intentions in pursuing nuclear technology are peaceful. But the West has continued to harbour suspicions because of the Iranians' refusal to come clean on the extent of its nuclear programme, which was concealed from inspectors for 18 years. There also questions as to why oil-rich Iran, with its vast energy reserves, is so keen to develop nuclear energy.
Last week, a leaked EU intelligence assessment provided more details about companies and middlemen used by the Iranians in their search for nuclear suppliers in Europe and the former Soviet Union. The report provided no proof, however, that the materials were destined for a nuclear weapon.
Hans Blix, the former chief UN weapons inspector who headed the UN nuclear watchdog, said: "I think some of the Iranians want to go to nuclear weapons." He pointed to a 40-megawatt heavy-water plant at Arak, which could produce enough plutonium for a nuclear bomb, as a sign that Iran may not have purely peaceful intentions.
A former Israeli general said he recently met Iranian figures in Europe who told him Tehran was "very determined" to acquire nuclear weapons. Uzi Dayan said his informants had an Iranian academic and civil servant background and represented "the official Iranian position". Israel has refused to rule out a possible pre-emptive military strike on Iran.
The European statement issued after the ministers' talks in Berlin stressed that the current dispute is "about Iran's failure to build the necessary confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear programme. Iran continues to challenge the authority of the IAEA Board by ignoring its repeated requests and providing only partial co-operation to the IAEA." The statement noted that this is not just a dispute between Iran and Europe "but between Iran and the whole international community" . It said it was important for the credibility of the non-proliferation regime, as well as the stability of the Middle East region, "that the international community responds firmly to this challenge".
The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, urged the UN Security Council to maintain the pressure on the Iranians.
However, Iran argues that it has a right under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to enrich uranium, and has informed the IAEA that it only intends to conduct small-scale enrichment at Natanz . The Europeans and US could face difficulties in referring Iran to the UN Security Council for breaking a moratorium which was voluntary in the first place, and without the IAEA declaring Iran to be in breach of its obligations.
The Europeans and the US stressed that they still hope for a diplomatic solution to the stand off. But some analysts said it was a mistake by the Europeans and the Bush administration in recent days to use threatening language that could force Iran into even more extreme positions.
Signatory of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty accused of holding weapons of mass destruction including a nuclear arms programme. UN weapons inspectors were expelled from the country on the eve of the 2003 war.
Confirmed to UN in 1995 that it had a clandestine nuclear weapons scheme following revelations by Saddam Hussein's brother-in-law who had defected. Before 2003 invasion, regime was accused of concealing WMD from UN inspectors.
Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, 5 March 2003: "It serves the interest of no one for Saddam to miscalculate. It doesn't serve the interest of the United States or the world or Iraq for Saddam to miscalculate our intention or our willingness to act."
November 2002: Iraq threatened with military action unless it co-operates with UN inspectors. US leads invasion without Security Council backing.
Signatory of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty accused of working on nuclear weapons programme. UN weapons inspectors are at work in the country.
Confirmed to UN in 2002 that it had a clandestine nuclear programme after revelations by Iranian dissidents. Iran was accused by Britain, France and Germany yesterday of "concealment and deception".
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, 11 January, 2006: "The Iranian regime has made a serious miscalculation. If negotiations have run their course and Iran is not going to negotiate in good faith, then there's no other option but to refer the matter to the Security Council."
12 January 2006: Britain, France and Germany call for Iran to be referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions. Failure to reach agreement could give US hawks - and Israel - an excuse for unilateral military action.