An investigation into whether Iran was seeking to build nuclear weapons has reached "a dead end", the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has told members of the UN body.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the IAEA, made the remarks at a meeting of the group's governors in Vienna, where a resolution demanding Tehran mothball a new uranium enrichment site is expected to be passed.
ElBaradei expressed dismay over Iran's failure to notify the IAEA of the site near Qom that it had been building clandestinely for two years, until September, and its failuire to address allegations about a suspected 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 on Thursday.
"We have effectively reached a dead end, unless Iran engages fully with us."
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, plus Germany have been working on a draft resolution to be put to a vote during the two-day meeting in the Austrian capital.
"Iran's late declaration of the new facility reduces confidence in the absence of other nuclear facilities under construction in Iran which have not been declared to the agency"
Diplomats have forecast that a majority of the 35 governors will approve the resolution, in what would be its first action against Iran in almost four years.
The resolution, a restricted copy of which was obtained by the Reuters news agency, urged Iran to immediately halt construction of the Qom plant, clarify its original purpose and confirm it has no more hidden atomic activity or covert plans for any.
It voiced "serious concern" over its cover-up of the second uranium enrichment facility and said it was in blatant breach of UN demands for an enrichment suspension.
The resolution also called on Iran to shelve all enrichment-related activity as demanded by Security Council resolutions since 2006, grant unfettered IAEA inspections and open up to an IAEA probe into suspicions it conducted illicit nuclear weapons research.
The last IAEA board resolution passed against Iran was in February 2006 when governors referred Tehran's case to the UN Security Council over its refusal to suspend enrichment and open up completely to IAEA inspections and investigations.
The fact that Russia and China seem ready to support the latest draft resolution is seen as a sign of the growing frustration over Iran's refusal to accept in full an IAEA-brokered plan to ship most of its uranium abroad for further processing.
Beijing and Moscow have often blocked a tough united front against Iran in global security bodies and avoided direct criticism of Tehran.
| Iran has warned of 'long-term consequences' if the resolution is passed [EPA]
The Washington Post
newspaper reported on Wednesday that US officials had persuaded China that big power unity was needed because Israel saw Iran's nuclear drive as an "existential" threat that could lead to a Middle East war, stopping Iranian oil exports crucial to China's booming economy.
But it was unclear whether Russia and China's expression of disenchantment with Iran, an important trade partner for both, would translate into readiness for harsher UN sanctions which Western powers will push for if the fuel deal falls through.
On Wednesday, ElBaradei said the new resolution could backfire by aggravating Iran's siege mentality, boosting nuclear hardliners.
Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's envoy to the IAEA, told Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper on Thursday the resolution would "endanger the prevailing constructive atmosphere" and have "long-term consequences".
Soltanieh said that if the resolution was passed Iran's co-operation "would be reduced to the minimum we are legally obliged".
A November 16 report by the IAEA said Iran violated a transparency statute by admitting the existence of the Qom enrichment site only two months ago, at least two years after building began, and raised concern it could be harbouring more secret sites.
Iran had previously assured the IAEA it was not concealing nuclear activity with potential weapons applications.
ElBaradei said that Iran's failure to notify the agency of the existence of the plant "was inconsistent with its obligations."
"Iran's late declaration of the new facility reduces confidence in the absence of other nuclear facilities under construction in Iran which have not been declared to the agency."
Tehran says the bunkered Qom site, which is to start operations in 2011, is a backup for its much larger Natanz enrichment centre in case it is bombed by foes such as Israel.
Western nuclear analysts say Qom's low capacity makes it unsuitable for any purpose but to enrich smaller quantities of uranium suitable for a bomb.
Enrichment plants generally need tens of thousands of centrifuges to feed a nuclear power plant.