VIENNA (Reuters) - European countries are losing patience with Iran over its nuclear program, diplomats said on Friday, as France's foreign minister insisted Tehran must assure the world it does not plan to acquire nuclear weapons.
Western diplomats close to negotiations between Britain, France and Germany and Iran said the European trio might soon be ready to support U.S. demands to refer Tehran's nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council in November.
Iran, defying calls by the U.N. nuclear watchdog, said earlier this week it had begun processing raw uranium to prepare it for enrichment -- a process that can be used to develop nuclear bombs.
"It looks like Iran is going to the Security Council," said one diplomat, who declined to be named. "People now are discussing what will happen when it goes there."
The European trio have been trying for over a year to persuade Iran to abandon its enrichment program, resisting U.S. calls for tougher action to isolate and punish Tehran.
French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said Iran urgently needed to reassure the international community about its nuclear program, which Tehran says is purely for nuclear energy.
"We are exactly at the time we need to be reassured and this is what we have told the Iranians," he told reporters in New York, where he was attending the U.N. General Assembly.
"We are concerned that Iran is moving into research programs which might lead to nuclear weapons," he said. "Assurances must be given that Iran that does not wish to and shall not acquire nuclear weapons.
"The other alternative, if we are not reassured, is naturally to submit this question to the Security Council," Barnier said. "But for the time being, I still want to believe that we will keep the spirit of this contract, and it is in the interest of Iran and the interest of stability in the region."
It is not clear what would happen after any referral to the Security Council. Diplomats say its members would be unwilling to risk pushing up oil prices by imposing oil sanctions.
But they said the Security Council could start with a strong statement urging Iran to co-operate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Such a statement would be likely to win support from permanent Security Council members Russia and China, they said.
The United States and Israel have hinted at the possibility of military action to take out Iran's nuclear infrastructure.
Earlier this week, Israeli officials said they were buying 500 U.S. "bunker buster" bombs capable of penetrating Iran's underground nuclear facilities.
"ALREADY TOO LATE"
Washington says Iran is developing nuclear bombs and has been demanding since last year that the IAEA's 35-member board report Iran to the Security Council for concealing its enrichment program for two decades.
Last October, Iran promised the EU trio it would suspend all enrichment activities. But while Iran has not enriched any uranium, it has continued building and testing centrifuges and has begun processing uranium.
Diplomats and intelligence officials have told Reuters in recent interviews that once Iran has enough uranium feed material for its centrifuges, it will begin enriching it.
Negotiations between the EU trio and Iran will continue in the hope that Tehran will agree to a full freeze, but diplomats close to the talks said this was unlikely.
Another diplomat said it would be "very Iranian" if Tehran agreed to a suspension right before an IAEA board meeting due to discuss Iran on Nov. 25, but this would not be enough.
"The resolution called for an immediate suspension of the enrichment program," said a Western diplomat on the IAEA board. "It is already too late." (Additional reporting by Evelyn Leopold at the United Nations)