Iran, by resuming sensitive nuclear research activities Tuesday despite stinging Western criticism, risks finally rupturing fragile ties with the European Union and now faces UN referral, officials and experts warned.
Germany Foreign Minister Steinmeier says Iran has "crossed a line"
Europe's big three -- Britain, France and Germany, which have been seeking to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program -- said they plan to meet on Thursday to discuss the latest development.
In Washington, the United States threatened to seek Iran's referral to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.
And in Vienna, the director of the UN watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, expressed his "serious concern" and said Tehran had explained that it wanted to enrich uranium on a "small scale."
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said referring Iran to the UN Security Council would "top the agenda" at the EU-3 talks.
He said it would likely take place Thursday, and a German foreign ministry spokesman said Berlin would "very probably" be the venue.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw
Straw (photo) voiced "profound concern" at Iran's move, a sentiment echoed in Paris and Berlin, where Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tehran was sending "worrisome signals."
"Crossing the line"
Heightening the feeling of a rupture, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Iran had "crossed a line where the Iranians knew that it would not remain without consequences."
Europe and the United States fear that Iran's nuclear program could be a cover for developing atomic weapons, a charge Tehran strongly refutes, saying is it for civilian purposes only.
Amid growing concerns, Iran signed an agreement with the European Union in Paris in November 2003 to suspend all activities linked to enrichment.
But formal talks ceased last August when Tehran resumed uranium conversion, a final step before enrichment. Enriched uranium can be used to produce electricity as well as provide the basis for nuclear weapons.
On Tuesday, Iran went a step further, announcing it was removing seals from nuclear facilities.
"As of today, these centres resume their activities," said Mohammad Saidi, deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency.
IAEA's Director General Mohamed ElBaradei
A report by ElBaradei (photo) to the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors confirmed the removal of seals from the Natanz plant and said that the process would be completed Wednesday at two other sites.
Iran will likely "begin low-scale enrichment testing" at Natanz, said Mark Fitzgerald, a non-proliferation expert with London's International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
That "crosses a red line the Europeans and Americans have said, if crossed, would trigger other action," he told AFP.
He said Natanz has 164 centrifuges for uranium enrichment.
Even if these centrifuges cannot produce enough uranium to make a bomb, "by mastering that technology" Iran "would pass a point of no return in as much as it could then replicate this kind of (centrifuge) cascade... in a clandestine, non-reported facility."
Security Council involvement?
The White House, warning of a "serious escalation", threatened referral to the Security Council if Iran failed to keep its international obligations and did not show a willingness to negotiate with the EU-3.
Demonstrators demanding the referral of Iran's nuclear file to the U.N. Security Council
Gregory Schulte, the US ambassador to the IAEA, said Tehran "continues to choose confrontation" and "shows its disdain for international concern and its rejection of international diplomacy," with this "deliberate step towards ... creating nuclear bomb material."
Russia has also appealed to Iran to "maintain the moratorium" on enrichment activities, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Tehran has up to now rejected a Russian compromise deal to enrich Iranian uranium on Russian soil.