Iran told to halt work on nuclear plant by UN watchdog

International Atomic Energy Agency vote could form the basis for a future binding resolution by the UN security council

Iran faced rare international unity today when the governing board of the UN nuclear watchdog issued a formal demand that it immediately halt work on a secret uranium enrichment plant at the centre of concerns that the country is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

Russia and China lined up with the US, Britain, France and Germany to censure Iran in a vote by the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), passing the first resolution against Iran in nearly four years by a 25-3 margin.

The IAEA vote could form the basis for a future binding resolution by the UN security council, which in turn could be used to impose sanctions.

Gordon Brown was quick to warn of punitive measures: “I believe the next stage will have to be sanctions if Iran does not respond to what is a very clear vote from the world community,” he said in Trinidad and Tobago where he is attending a Commonwealth summit.

The Foreign Office called the resolution “the strongest possible signal to Iran that its actions and intentions remain a matter of grave international concern”.

But it also left the door open for compliance. “We are waiting for Iran to respond meaningfully,” a Foreign Office statement said. “But if it is clear that Iran has chosen not to do so, we will have no alternative but to consider further pressure on Iran in line with the dual-track policy we have been pursuing.”

The six countries leading the negotiations made clear a week ago that they were unhappy with Iran’s foot-dragging after talks in Geneva and Vienna and its apparent rejection of a deal to transfer 75% of its low-enriched uranium abroad to be used by a Tehran reactor that makes isotopes for cancer treatments. They urged Iran “to reconsider the opportunity offered by this agreement … and to engage seriously with us in dialogue and negotiations”.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, said after today’s vote: “Adoption of this resolution is not only unhelpful in improving the current situation but will jeopardise the conducive environment vitally needed for success in the process of Geneva and Vienna negotiations expected to lead to a common understanding.”

Iran’s standard response is to warn that it will reduce co-operation if put under pressure, but western diplomats believe it will not want to alienate its own supporters by acting illegally. Cuba, Malaysia and Venezuela opposed the IAEA resolution while Brazil, Egypt, Pakistan, South Africa, Turkey and Afghanistan abstained.

President Barack Obama has warned there could be a package of sanctions against Iran within weeks, but the timing is crucial, not least because of differences on the security council and the key question of how effective any punitive measures would be.

Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Iran, said: “If the present set of talks are even faintly alive I don’t think it is in the interests of the six to say ‘let’s move to sanctions now’. But it’s inevitable that sanctions discussions will get more real.”

Gloom about the apparent impasse deepened yesterday with a statement by Mohamed ElBaradei, the outgoing director-general of the IAEA, expressing dismay over Iran’s failure, until September, to notify the IAEA of the site near Qom that it had been secretly building for two years, and its failure to address allegations about a suspected nuclear weapons programme.

“It is now well over a year since the agency was last able to engage Iran in discussions about these outstanding issues,” he said. “We have effectively reached a dead end, unless Iran engages fully with us.”