UN Nuclear Watchdog Okays Cuts in Aid to Iranian Nuclear Program

Key UN states draft full arms embargo on Iran in response to its refusal to halt uranium enrichment.

United Nations nuclear agency governors on Thursday ratified cuts in technical aid to Iran over concern that Tehran might be trying to build nuclear bombs under cover of a civilian atomic energy program, diplomats said.

The move by the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) followed UN sanctions passed in December that ban transfers of technology or expertise to Iran that might be of use in producing nuclear fuel.

By consensus, the board adopted a decision by the IAEA's Secretariat to freeze or curb 22 of the 55 aid projects, diplomats in the closed session at IAEA headquarters said.

Western powers such as the United States and France who bankroll the IAEA's special aid programs and drew up sanctions against Iran originally demanded more sweeping reductions.

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) bloc of developing nations, to which Iran belongs, had opposed cuts. They feared a precedent would be set jeopardizing their own access to IAEA aid for nuclear energy seen as key to modernizing their economies.

They also claimed there is no hard evidence Iran is abusing IAEA resources for military ends, although doubts abound.

"No one is totally satisfied. But both sides felt it best not to challenge the Secretariat's professional judgment. It was as fair and balanced as possible under the politically charged circumstances," a senior NAM diplomat told Reuters.

Only two states in the IAEA's 50-year history have been stripped of nuclear aid due to concern about possible diversions into bomb making - North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

The blocked projects related to nuclear power planning and technical and security measures in developing nuclear fuel.

Projects that were spared involve radio pharmaceuticals and isotopes for medical, agriculture and humanitarian purposes.

Ahead of the widely expected decision, Iranian envoy Ali Asghar Soltanieh condemned it and blamed the U.N. Security Council, saying it had illegally undermined the IAEA's professional independence.

Soltanieh said none of the projects had anything to do with nuclear fuel production and this would continue no matter what.

Tehran says its nuclear program, centered on uranium enrichment which can yield fuel for power plants or, if taken to higher degrees, bombs, is meant only to generate electricity.

Western powers suspect a hidden agenda to build nuclear arms and four years of IAEA investigations often stonewalled by Iran have failed to verify Iran's intentions are entirely peaceful.

The three major EU powers on the board urged Iran on Wednesday to embrace a U.N. idea of a "timeout" from nuclear activity, saying sanctions they sponsored against Tehran would be simultaneously suspended.

Iran rejected the overture, insisting its bid for nuclear energy was peaceful, legal and non-negotiable. Tehran said it shared Europe's wish for talks to resolve the standoff but only on ways to assure the West it had no covert nuclear arms agenda.

Iran ignored a Feb. 21 U.N. Security Council deadline to stop refining uranium and took initial steps to shift from research-level enrichment to "industrial-scale" production.

Key UN members draft full arms embargo resolution against IranThe five permanent United Nation Security Council members and Germany are drafting a new resolution against Iran which may for the first time include all UN members in a weapons embargo on Tehran.

Sources in New York estimated Wednesday that Russia - strongly opposed to the draft initiated by the United States - might go along with the resolution if it is restricted to an embargo on Iran's export of weapons.

Efforts are underway to reach an agreement regarding Iran's import of weapons. The new resolution would request UN members to remain alert and implement tight oversight and inspection to foil Iranian attempts to procure weapons.

Sources in the UN estimated that a final draft of the new resolution will be brought up for discussion in the Security Council no sooner than the end of March.

The new resolution draft is a reaction to Iran's refusal to abide by resolution 1737, passed last December, demanding that it halt its uranium enrichment program. Britain's ambassador to the UN, James Perry, said Tuesday that the resolution would supplement and tighten the financial sanctions imposed on Iran in the previous resolution.

The new resolution is expected to include restrictions on Iranian trade with the U.S. In addition, the number of Iranian officials restricted from visiting various countries is expected to be increased. Under the new resolution, the possessions and assets of further officials involved with the Iranian nuclear program are expected to be frozen.

Sources in New York say the weapons embargo on Iran would have a significant influence on the Islamic Republic's relations with Syria. "Iran would probably continue to supply Syria with weapons, some of which are transferred to Hezbollah," said a senior Western diplomat on Wednesday. "Under the new resolution, the shipments would constitute a blatant violation of the embargo imposed by the council."

As in the previous resolution, the new one is expected to include an ultimatum for Iran to abide by the council's decision and halt the uranium enrichment program. The U.S. wants this extension to last 30 days, but Moscow's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said the ultimatum would last for 60 days.