Tehran's nuclear negotiator said referring Iran to the UN Security Council would spell the end of diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue of its nuclear program -- after the permanent Council members agreed to do so.
Feelings run high over the possibility of Iran becoming a nuclear power
"We consider any referral or report of Iran to the Security Council as the end of diplomacy," Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, was quoted as saying by state television.
Previously, foreign ministers from six countries -- permanent Security Council members Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States plus Germany -- said in a joint statement after a four-hour dinner in London that they had agreed that the UN nuclear watchdog "should report to the Security Council its decision on the steps required of Iran" when the International Atomic Energy Agency meets in Vienna Thursday. But in a compromise with Russian reluctance, the powers put off UN action until at least March.
A senior US state department official hailed the move as an historic breakthrough as it was the "first time in two years that you have all the members of the permanent five (who have veto powers on the Council) giving the same message to Iran."
This means that Iran "can't depend on Russia and China to block action" at the Security Council, which can impose sanctions.
Iran says its nuclear program is a peaceful effort to generate electricity, but Europe and the United States believe it may be a cover for developing atomic weapons.
The tense dinner hosted by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on Monday spilled over past midnight as the West worked on convincing key Iranian ally and trade partner Russia, which has resisted taking Iran to the Security Council, as well as China to join in sending a strong signal to Iran.
Russia won a key concession; however, as the statement said the major powers agreed that the Security Council "should await the (IAEA) Director General's report to the March meeting of the IAEA board... before deciding to take action to reinforce the authority of the IAEA process."
The Security Council can issue warnings or impose sanctions as punitive measures in its role as an enforcement body, unlike the IAEA which has no such powers and has been investigating the Iranian nuclear program for three years.
The United States had wanted immediate Security Council action but the official said the US realized that in diplomacy "you give a little and take a little."
"The action is transferred to New York," the US official said, about the Iranian dossier going to the Security Council. "In diplomacy you take it one step at a time. The real issue was getting to the Security Council," the official said.
The statement said the IAEA "should also report to the Security Council all IAEA reports and resolutions as adopted," which include findings of non-compliance with international safeguards that clear the way to UN action.
The official said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had gone into the dinner with her five counterparts feeling "that Iran had to be referred to the UN Security Council, that temporizing had gone on too long."
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said he and his colleagues "wished that a firm message from the international community be sent in a united fashion to the Iranian authorities, who must understand that they must suspend nuclear activities."
"The diplomatic route, which is the better way to proceed, can then resume," Douste-Blazy told a late-night meeting with French reporters.
Another Western official told the press: "Now the ball is really in Iran's court."
An angry Iranian reaction cutting off cooperation or pushing ahead with nuclear fuel work could guarantee UN action while Iranian compliance with IAEA demands to cease such work which makes reactor fuel but also bomb material and to cooperate with IAEA inspectors could defuse the situation.
Rice had said earlier that Iran's response to diplomatic efforts to reach a compromise was not good enough and that it was playing for time.
Last September the IAEA found Tehran in non-compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) for hiding nuclear work for almost two decades and called on it to suspend all nuclear fuel activities.
But while a finding of non-compliance requires referral of the matter to the Security Council, the IAEA board of governors put off such a report to give Iran time to comply with its demands.
Iran then set off the latest crisis on January 10 when it broke IAEA seals on uranium enrichment equipment.