YESTERDAY'S decision by the board of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) to refer the issue of Iran's nuclear programme to the UN Security Council is difficult to understand. After intense lobbying by the United States, twenty-seven states out of the thirty-five on the IAEA's board voted in favour of the resolution, three opposed and there were five abstentions (the three opposed were, predictably, Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria). It is not necessary to suggest that there is no case for Iran to answer in order to question the wisdom of yesterday's vote. It is the timing of the vote that seems strange and possibly counter-productive. The definitive view on whether or not Iran is moving systematically towards the manufacture of nuclear weapons will come from the IAEA's director, Mohammad ElBaradei; his report has been scheduled for March for some time and will be eagerly awaited. Why then have the United States and Britain, France and Germany pushed so hard to anticipate his report by prejudging Iran's position? The explanation given by the United States is that the resolution passed yesterday is a kind of early-warning designed to give Iran a “grace period” before Mr ElBaradei's report in which to reflect on its position and come into line with international thinking. Others may conclude that the resolution is designed to pre-empt Mr ElBaradei's conclusions on Iran's intentions. Whatever the explanation, the fact is that in getting China and Russia to support the resolution, its sponsors have had to water it down so that it excludes any proposal that the Security Council should take action of any kind, and specifically not sanctions, at this stage. There was, however, one interesting development in the course of yesterday's debate at the IAEA. Egypt proposed that the resolution should include a reference to the desirability of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. At first the United States opposed this, presumably in deference to Israel's nuclear interests, but later agreed. An internationally imposed nuclear-free zone in the Middle East would be a major step forward.