The UN nuclear watchdog Saturday voted 27 to 3 in favor of sending Iran to the UN Security Council over concerns that Tehran is developing atomic weapons in an historic move that opens the door to punitive action.
Iran's nuclear ambitions have could bring it before the UN Security Council
Iran reacted sharply, saying it would move ahead immediately on full-scale uranium enrichment, which it had suspended as a confidence-building gesture, and limit IAEA inspections.
Enrichment makes nuclear reactor fuel but also atom bomb material.
The United States expressed satisfaction with the decision. "Today's vote sends Iran a very clear and unmistakable message that they need to abide by their international obligations and to heed the call of the international community," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
The resolution passed by 27-3, with five abstentions, a majority US ambassador Gregory Schulte called "overwhelming."
The resolution put off any UN action against Iran for at least a month, to give time for diplomacy until the next meeting in Vienna in March of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
But in a last-minute text change it mandated the board to "immediately thereafter (the March 6 board meeting) convey" a report and assessment by IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei on Iran to the Security Council.
The transmission of this report would clear the way for the Council to take action that is expected first to be a statement urging Iranian cooperation, with sanctions a possibility later on.
Action to halt enrichment not punish Iran, says US ambassador
Schulte said the idea was to get Iran to yield to IAEA calls to suspend all uranium enrichment activities and to cooperate fully with IAEA inspectors, not to punish the Islamic republic.
The IAEA has been investigating Iran for three years on US charges that it is hiding nuclear weapons development but has reached no conclusions.
The goal is "to add the Council's weight . . . for Iran to choose a course of cooperation and negotiation over a course of confrontation," Schulte said.
Chinese ambassador Wu Hailong said his country did not see the resolution as allowing for UN punitive action but Schulte said it incorporated a September IAEA resolution that found Iran in non-compliance for hiding nuclear activities for almost two decades, a finding that requires the current report to the Security Council.
Merkel and Rumsfeld say no to nuclear Iran
Rumsfeld was strongly critical of Iran in Munich.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a security conference in Munich that Iran had "overstepped the mark" with its nuclear program, while US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the world "did not want a nuclear Iran."
German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said, "The Iranian nuclear program directly impacts on our security, because the repeated statements of the Iranian president raised questions as to whether the nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes. Therefore the decision to involve the Security Council with the Iran case is correct."
But Javad Vaidi, a member of Iran's supreme national security council and head of the Iranian delegation to the IAEA meeting, told reporters "our government has to implement full-scale enrichment," adding the Iranian parliament had passed a law requiring this to be done if referral took place.
Vaidi said the "resolution is politically motivated since it is not based on any legal or technical grounds."
The vote at this week's meeting of the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors was delayed Friday when Egypt insisted on adding a clause implying that Israel should give up its alleged atomic weapons.
The United States finally accepted a wording calling for a Middle East zone free of "weapons of mass destruction" instead of just nuclear arms, as this lifted the exclusive focus on Israel, a diplomat said.
Cuba, Syria and Venezuela, which all have disputes with the United States, voted against it, while Algeria, Belarus, Indonesia, Libya and South Africa abstained.
Key non-aligned states Brazil, Egypt and India voted for it.
P-5 and Germany close ranks on common ground
Iran is on the way to the UN Security Council.
The five permanent Security Council members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- and Germany had closed ranks over the resolution to take Iran to the Security Council. Unlike the IAEA, the Security Council has enforcement powers.
The text is a compromise between the US desire for immediate Security Council action and Russia's demand for time for more diplomacy.
Russia, a key trade partner of Iran, hopes the crisis can be defused without the Security Council imposing sanctions.
Moscow is sponsoring a compromise proposal for Iran to carry out uranium enrichment in Russia so that the Iranians do not master this technology which is considered a "breakout capacity" for making atomic weapons.
But Vaidi told Iranian state television that Iran may no longer even consider the Russian proposal.
Despite the IAEA call for Iran to suspend nuclear fuel work, Tehran pressed ahead in January with preparations for uranium enrichment, after having in August resumed uranium conversion that makes the feedstock gas for enrichment.