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US, Europe may delay confrontation with Iran over nuclear program

PARIS -- The United States has been unable to win the international support it wants to report Iran to the UN Security Council, despite two years of diplomatic efforts and defiant new actions by Tehran to resume uranium enrichment research, according to European diplomats involved in the negotiations.

With the International Atomic Energy Agency scheduled to discuss the crisis between Iran and Western nations Feb. 2, US and European officials are considering whether to delay a direct confrontation with Tehran in return for greater pressure from Iran's allies to halt its enrichment research, the European diplomats said.

Some forms of enriched uranium can be used to make nuclear weapons, though Iran maintains that its research will be used only to produce electrical power.

Russia, concerned that a referral of Iran to the Security Council by the IAEA would result in international sanctions against a major trading partner, has proposed a less formal approach that would allow the council to discuss Iran's case and outline guidelines for compliance with international demands, the diplomats said. European diplomats discussed the negotiations on the condition they not be identified because of the sensitivity and volatility of the ongoing talks.

''The Russians say we have to take a very gradual, incremental approach," said a European diplomat close to the flurry of shuttle diplomacy this week between European capitals and some of Iran's closest allies, including Moscow, Beijing, and New Delhi. ''The objective is now to use the time until Feb. 2 to build a consensus. The wider the consensus, the stronger the message to Iran."

The Bush administration's primary goal is to report Iran's case to the Security Council, where the United States has more clout than it does inside the IAEA and where Iran can be threatened with sanctions. With stronger support from the Europeans in recent weeks, the White House appears closer to getting the case to the Security Council than at any time in the two years since it began the push.

Talks between Tehran and the so-called EU3 -- Britain, France, and Germany -- broke down last fall, pushing the European countries closer to Washington's harder-line position.

Officials say the United States and the Europeans are likely to garner enough votes at the IAEA meeting to report Iran, but would then face problems seeking Security Council action without the full support of Russia and China. As permanent members of the council, both Russia and China have veto power over its decisions.

''We are ready to take action," said an EU3 official close to the negotiations. ''At the same time, we have to get everybody on board. Clearly Russia and China are not yet on board for referral" to the Security Council.

Several European diplomats said it is possible Russia and China can be persuaded to support a formal report to the Security Council, but they also contended that Europeans increasingly are inclined to accept a version of Russia's more flexible proposal.

''The name of the game is to try to line up the international community so the Iranians can't play one against the other," said Francois Heisbourg, who heads the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research.

Pursuing an informal path would give Iran more time to respond to questions from UN inspectors and to explore a possible deal in which it would enrich uranium in Russia rather than at home. If Iran provides the cooperation that inspectors say they need and holds off on any additional research until the IAEA meets again in March, it could greatly affect the council's response, according to Western diplomats familiar with the negotiations.

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