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The feeling on Iran? Watch NAM

March 3, 2010

Could developing nations cause headaches for Iran at the U.N. nuclear watchdog?

What they think about the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) latest report on Iran is important because Tehran has often been able to count on a certain amount of support from the 118-nation bloc of mainly developing nations at the agency, which makes decisions by diplomatic consensus.

International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano opens his briefcase during a news conference after a board of governors meeting in Vienna March 1, 2010.

International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano.

Around half of the agency’s members are in the group, known as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) which includes Iran, Syria, India, South Africa, Pakistan and Cuba among its ranks.

New IAEA director-general Yukiya Amano suggested in his report that the Islamic Republic could be actively trying to develop a nuclear-armed missile. Tehran has dismissed his report as biased.

NAM has often given Iran a sympathetic ear. But if support from the bloc wavers it could leave Iran isolated at the Vienna-based agency and indicate the breadth of international concern about Iran’s nuclear programme, which Tehran says is solely aimed at peaceful purposes such as atomic power and medicine.

The NAM emphasises Tehran’s right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to develop a civilian atomic programme, although some members have privately voiced concern about Iran and believe it must open up to the IAEA to defuse mistrust.

That idea came through in a statement made by NAM chair Egypt to the agency’s 35-nation governing board this week. “NAM encourages Iran to intensify its cooperation with the agency to provide credible assurances regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran within the Agency’s mandate.”

It was a diplomatic nudge in line with what the IAEA has been saying itself. But the line pleased Western diplomats who had feared the bloc would join Iran’s tirade against Amano, whom it has accused of being inexperienced and influenced by the West.

The statement avoided personal jibes. However it said it was surprised Amano did not include some of Iran’s responses to the agency on open questions about its programme.

Iran's IAEA ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh (R) arrives for a board of governors meeting in Vienna March 1, 2010.

Iran's IAEA ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh (R).

It also noted other differences in the report to those of Amano’s predecessor Mohamed ElBaradei who took a more ambivalent approach, especially regarding Western intelligence suggesting possibly military dimensions to Iran’s work.

In the past Iran has been able to exploit a concern held by developing nations that attempts by big powers to stop Tehran’s uranium enrichment work without hard proof of a bomb agenda would undo their right to a share of nuclear technology.

Iran asserts that Western nations want to stunt its development and preserve inequality – suggestions which resonate with many developing nations.

Still, there were already some signs last year that Iran’s effort to rally the NAM group had hit an obstacle – Iran’s second uranium enrichment site buried in a mountain near the holy city of Qom.

The IAEA voted in November to censure Iran for building the plant in secret. Only three members of the 35-nation board voted against the resolution – Cuba, Venezuela and Malaysia, whose envoy was consequently sacked. All the other NAM nations either abstained from the vote or supported it.

“There are always these rhetorical statements (at the board) by the NAM ‘noticing this and noting that’ on the Iran report,” a European diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity since he was not authorized to speak publicly on political topics.

“But the (November) votes showed that there is not much behind that rhetoric.”

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