The United States has been unsuccessfully pushing for a referral for the last two years. But the EU had resisted the move. (See RFE/RL's annotated timeline of the standoff surrounding Iran's nuclear program.)
Now the situation has changed. The EU countries say unless Iran suspends its conversion activities and return to the negotiations table, they have no choice but to support having the issue referred to the UN body. Uranium conversion is an early stage of the nuclear-fuel cycle. It precedes uranium enrichment, a key step toward producing nuclear weapons.
Despite the threat, Iran has said it will continue to process uranium at the Isfahan facility and that it will not return to suspending nuclear activities as a condition for talks with the EU. Iran’s Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki on 11 September warned that a referral to the Security Council will have “consequences," but did not go into details.
"The resumption of the Isfahan plant's suspension is not part of our agenda and is out of the question for us," Mottaki said.
Besides Iran’s defiance there is also a newly issued IAEA report that says despite investigation, the agency is still not able “to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran.”
David Albright is a former UN weapons inspector and the president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, D.C. He says events are unfolding in a way that it appears Iran’s case could go to the UN Security Council.
“I’ve been watching this since it began and I would say this is the closest the [IAEA] Board of Governors has come to referring Iran to the Security Council and so I wouldn’t be surprised if it would happen," Albright said.
Bruno Tertrais, a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, says a referral to the UN Security Council is at the current stage “uncertain,” but he adds that the pressure is increasing.
“It was clear in late August and early September that there was no appetite in a number of countries represented at the board to go the to UN Security Council, so I think the American and European pressure this time will be much stronger," Tertrais said. "And I think it’s very possible that they will be a majority of countries in favor of such a referral.”
As the crucial 19 September IAEA meeting approaches, both sides of the dispute -- the United States and EU countries, on one hand, and Iran, on the other -- are trying to get the support of IAEA board members. Reportedly there is lots of behind the scene lobbying going on.
On 9 September, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on China, Russia, and India to support the U.S. drive to have the IAEA bring Iran before the Security Council
"Iran needs to get a message from the international community that is a unified message, and by this I mean not just the E.U.-3 [Britain, France, and Germany] and the United States, but also Russia and China and India and others," Rice said.
India is reportedly against a referral to the Security Council. Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran last week said Iran and the United States should talk over the nuclear issue and avoid confrontation.
Russia, which is building Iran’s only nuclear power plant at Bushehr, has also said it opposes a UN action against Iran.
Nuclear expert Albright, however, says that Russia’s stance could change.
"That’s historically been its position and that’s one of the big unknowns, whether it will change its mind before the actual vote, but I don’t see Russia going into this Board of Governors meeting and saying 'we don’t want Iran to go to the Security Council' and making a big effort to stop it unless something else happens because I don’t think Russia wants to put itself in opposition to the Europeans and the United States on this," Albright said.
China, another permanent member of the UN Security Council, has also said in the past that it is not in favor of taking Iran’s case to the UN Security Council. China is involved in extensive economic dealings with Iran.
Last month, the IAEA board of governors adopted a resolution by consensus that called on Tehran to reinstate its suspension of uranium-enrichment-related activities, including conversion, in full.
This time it is still not clear yet whether board members will unanimously agree on a resolution against Iran.
David Albright says a resolution sending Iran’s nuclear dossier to the Security Council can be adopted by a majority of votes.
“Ideally you want it by consensus," he said. "There may be consensus, but technically Iran is not going to agree so you’ll never have pure consensus. But if Iran shows intransigence, if it is contemptuous of the request of Europe as it’s been publicly, then it may still anger people, [and] there will be a consensus. If the opposition is limited to a few nations that you can’t get anyway some of the members of the nonaligned movement, then they move to a vote and that’s enough.”
Albright adds that by sending Iran’s nuclear case to the UN Security Council, countries are trying to increase pressure on the Islamic Republic to refreeze sensitive nuclear activities and to resume talks with the EU trio. He adds that at the current stage sanctions are not expected against Tehran.
Bruno Tertrais argues that it is unlikely the Security Council will take action against Iran.
“The prospect for sanctions, at least UN sanctions, is extremely dim at present because neither Russia nor China want sanctions to be applied to Iran today," Tertrais said. "So if the issue goes to the UN Security Council, then I suppose we will end up having a fairly benign resolution urging Iran to maintain the suspension of its nuclear activity in order to give the best possible chance to a diplomatic outcome.”
Some Iranian MPs have said that in case of UN referral, Tehran should pull out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is expected to present new proposals to end the standoff at this week’s UN summit in New York.
For RFE/RL's complete coverage of the controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program, see "Iran's Nuclear Program."