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Q&A: What next in Iran crisis

By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- After a meeting in London with representatives from China, Russia and the U.S., the so-called Euro Three (Britain, France and Germany) say they will seek Iran's reference to the United Nations Security Council at an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency on February 2/3.

That is a step, say diplomats, which could be followed by a Security Council decision to impose sanctions on Iran unless it suspends its current nuclear program. But many uncertainties remain about the diplomatic efforts which, participants agree, will involve a "mountain of talk" before any clear action follows.

What might happen at the IAEA meeting?

The EU3 will press a resolution seeking Iran's reference to the Security Council. For that to pass it will require the support of 18 members of the 35-strong IAEA board. The Europeans believe they will have the support of Russia at least for reference to the Security Council. Sergei Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, has said that it is crucial for the Non-Proliferation Treaty to be upheld and that inflammatory remarks made by the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about the need to "wipe Israel off the map" have aggravated the situation and strengthened the case of those who want reference to the Security Council.

But will the Chinese go along with a Security Council reference?

Although Javier Solana, the EU's international policy chief, has said he is confident of Russian and Chinese support many Western diplomats are still doubtful that Beijing will play along. China blocked U.N. action on North Korea's nuclear program some time back and China has said that reference of Iran to the Security Council would "complicate the issue." China and Russia are crucial as permanent members of the Security Council who have the power to wield a veto.

Where else will the diplomatic effort be concentrated?

Those seeking a Security Council reference will now concentrate their efforts on members of the IAEA board like Malaysia, India, Brazil, South Africa, Venezuela and Cuba. They will attempt to build the biggest consensus they can for censuring Iran in the hope initially of persuading Tehran to renew the suspension of its nuclear program (a program that Iran insists is concentrated purely on civil nuclear power and which the West suspects is cloaking a determination to achieve nuclear weapons capability) and to return to the negotiating table.

Is there any possible compromise in sight?

There is just one. Russia, which has been building a nuclear power station for Iran at Bushehr, has made an offer to co-operate with the Iranians in producing the uranium they require enriched to the level required for energy-generation purposes (as opposed to weapons quality) but on Russian soil. While Ahmadinejad has said the resumption of Iran's nuclear program (characterized as being purely for research at this stage) is "irreversible" some Iranian diplomats have talked favorably about the Russian offer.

If there is reference to the Security Council does that mean that there will be tough economic sanctions against Iran?

Not necessarily, as UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has conceded. An initial stage at the Security Council could be an internationally backed demand that it suspend its nuclear activities. Or the U.N. body could give tougher powers to the IAEA nuclear inspectors to investigate Iranian activities. Or there could be sanctions stopping short of major economic ones, such as visa restrictions on travel for members of the Iranian regime. (That was the course which the EU and others took with President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and his associates).

Restrictions on Iranian teams participating in international events are less likely because the U.S. administration and others have said that any sanctions would target the Iranian regime, not the people of Iran with whom it has no quarrel.

But what about economic sanctions, surely the only ones that would hurt?

Hurt they would. The Iranian regime depends on international investment to develop its resources. But sanctions against the world's fourth largest oil-producer could be a double-edged sword. Iran has already threatened it would do anything it could in those circumstances to hike oil prices and the world is already jittery about energy security. Russia, China and Japan too have significant resources invested already in the Iranian economy, which they would be loath to put at risk and energy-hungry China depends on Iran for more than 12 per cent of its oil supplies.

Such national interests would make it very difficult to secure agreement in the Security Council on tough economic sanctions. And with Ahmadinejad sometimes seeming deliberately to provoke isolation for his own internal political purposes, some U.N. members would suggest that imposing sanctions might be playing into his hands and merely stoking Iranian nationalisms for him to exploit.

So what then about the military option?

For the moment that is confined to the grumblings of Israeli generals and some U.S. senators, although President George W. Bush has insisted publicly that it is one of the options that remains on the table. One of the reasons for Iran's brinkmanship is that Ahmadinejad can see how over-stretched the U.S. forces are in Iraq and Afghanistan and how reluctant even U.S. allies like Britain would be to join in any military strike against Iran. Straw has said the use of military force is definitely not on the agenda.

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