Six world powers that are poised to restart stalled talks with Iran sought on Wednesday to agree a unified stance on the Islamic Republic's nuclear programme, diplomats at the United Nations' nuclear agency said.
The United States and its Western allies - which have led international pressure on Tehran - initially pursued a resolution by the U.N. agency's board of governors to rebuke Iran over what they see as its failure to answer mounting concerns of a disguised bid to develop nuclear arms capability.
That includes Iran's refusal, during talks in Tehran this year, to grant U.N. inspectors access to a military site where they say research work relevant for nuclear weapons might have taken place. Western diplomats say they now suspect Iran may be trying to clean up the Parchin site, southeast of Tehran.
But diplomats said Russia and China - which are less keen on tightening sanctions - saw no need for a new resolution so soon after one was passed at the last 35-nation board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in November.
Instead, the focus is now on crafting a joint statement to be delivered at the current board meeting, which took the unusual step to adjourn until Thursday to give more time for big power envoys to consult with each other and their capitals.
One senior Western diplomat played down any suggestion of major differences between the four Western states - the United States, France, Britain and Germany - and Russia and China.
It was nothing that we can't resolve, the envoy said.
A joint statement would underline the importance of the powers' upcoming talks with Iran and also urge it to cooperate with IAEA inspectors after two recent rounds of largely fruitless meetings in Tehran, another Western diplomat said.
The Western camp would want to see relatively tough language on Iran to pressure it to cooperate with the IAEA while China and Russia seek a milder statement to help foster a constructive atmosphere for more talks, analysts say.
FOUR VERSUS TWO
A European diplomat, not from any of the six powers, said interrupting the meeting for a whole day suggested more fundamental differences between the four Western states and Russia and China on how best to approach the Iran issue.
Everybody is waiting for them to agree on this text, he said. It is four versus two.
Another Western diplomat familiar with the discussions said capitals were still considering the issue and the outcome would only become clear early on Thursday.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who would lead future talks with Iran on behalf of the six powers, announced on Tuesday there would be an attempt to revive the talks - stalled for more than a year - aimed at allaying suspicions that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.
A date and venue have yet to be agreed for the talks, proposed by Iran after a year's diplomatic standstill that has increased fears of a slide into a new Middle East war.
Russia and China, which have notable commercial ties to Iran, have backed four rounds of U.N. sanctions on the major oil producer since 2006 over its refusal to curb nuclear activity that can have military and civilian purposes alike.
But both Moscow and Beijing have criticised the United States and the European Union for imposing much harsher unilateral punitive steps on Iran, suggesting they could be counterproductive.
An IAEA report in November laid bare a trove of intelligence pointing to research activities in Iran relevant for developing the means and technologies needed to assemble nuclear weapons, should it decide to do so. Iran has dismissed the charges and insists its nuclear programme has no military dimension.
One key IAEA finding was information that Iran had built a large containment chamber at Parchin in which to conduct high-explosives tests that the agency said are strong indicators of possible weapon development.
IAEA chief Yukiya Amano on Monday said there were indications of unspecified activities at the site which made the agency want to go there sooner rather than later.
His remarks confirmed comments made by IAEA-accredited diplomats to Reuters last week, with one referring to reports we have heard about possible sanitation of the Parchin facility that he called very concerning.