VIENNA, Austria – The United States and most other nations at a meeting of the U.N. (search) atomic watchdog agency agreed Friday on a resolution meant to curb Iran's access to technology that could be used for nuclear weapons, and indirectly set a deadline for Tehran to meet their demands.
But the text fell short of Washington's goal of an explicit deadline and an automatic referral to the U.N. Security Council (search) if Iran defies the terms set by the International Atomic Energy Agency's (search) Board of Governors.
Nevertheless, members of the so-called nonaligned movement, including China and Pakistan, opposed parts of the text, and moved to force a rare showdown vote for Saturday — unprecedented in the more than two years that the agency has debated what to do about Iran's nuclear dossier. The nuclear agency's 35-nation board has passed previous Iran resolutions by consensus.
With the majority of board members favoring the version agreed on by the United States, the European Union, Canada and Australia, the challenges had little chance of being approved.
Still, the likelihood of a vote revealed deep divisions between the West and the nonaligned group over the issue of uranium enrichment — a technology that can be used both to generate electricity and to make nuclear weapons.
Washington and Europe want Iran to freeze all enrichment and related activities, while the nonaligned group wants any such demand excised, saying all nations should have the right to it as long as it is used for peaceful purposes.
While the Americans assert Iran is trying to make nuclear weapons, Tehran insists its enrichment plans are meant only to generate power.
Even with the Western resolution likely to be accepted in full, the challenges left open the possibility of new confrontation with the United States when the meeting reconvenes in November.
While demanding that Iran suspend all uranium enrichment activities, the resolution also recognizes the right of countries to the peaceful use of nuclear energy — precisely the phrase that left Iran room to maneuver.
Iran says it is already honoring a pledge on what it considers to be a freeze in enrichment. Tehran's chief delegate, Hossein Mousavian, told The Associated Press that "decision-makers" might keep the present state of suspension in effect "for two or three months" — until the November deadline set for Iran to meet the resolution demands — and perhaps even extend it so it encompasses some of the other conditions in the Western text.
But Mousavian said the resolution's recognition of countries' right to nuclear technology for nonmilitary use meant Iran had the right to enrich, whenever it decided to end its partial freeze.
Iran's present freeze means only that it's not introducing uranium hexafluoride gas into centrifuges to spin the feed stock into enriched uranium. But the resolution calls for more — demanding that Iran "immediately suspend all enrichment-related activities," including making, assembling and testing centrifuges, and producing uranium hexafluoride.
Iran is not prohibited from enrichment under its obligations to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty but faces growing international pressure to suspend such activities as a good-faith gesture.
IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei said an Iranian decision to at least maintain its present, limited suspension freeze would "be a step in the right direction." But he said he preferred "full suspension."
The text said the board will decide at the November meeting "whether or not further steps are required." Diplomats familiar with the draft defined that phrase as shorthand for possible referral to the U.N. Security Council if Iran defies the conditions set in the resolution.
By giving the Iranians room to maneuver on enrichment, the text appeared to fall far short of what the Americans had wanted. Washington had pushed to drop mention of countries' right to peaceful nuclear technology and fought for an Oct. 31 deadline, with the understanding that if Iran failed to comply with the resolution's demands, the board would then automatically begin deliberations on Security Council referral.
But in Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said: "We think that the text that we've worked at very diligently with our partners is a good text. It shows the spirit of compromise, and it keeps the pressure on Iran and sets up the November board meeting for important decisions."
The United States for months has sought to have Iran hauled before the Security Council, alleging that it continues to hide a secret nuclear weapons program. While European nations also share concerns about Iran's activities, the draft reflected their efforts to give Tehran more time to comply before turning to the Security Council, which has the power to impose economic and political sanctions.
Ereli said the United States continues to believe Iran should be asked to answer to the Security Council.
"I don't think it's an issue we're taking off the table," he said, suggesting a renewed effort come November. "The issue is working it in terms of a consensus so that everybody else sees it that way and takes the actions necessary to do it."
Mousavian praised the Europeans for "resisting the American request for a (precise) deadline and automatic referral."
"The Americans could not achieve their goals," he said. Still, he criticized the European Union for agreeing to "a political rather than a factual draft."
The draft also called on ElBaradei to submit a report by November reviewing the past two years of his Iran probe, and demanded that Iran "resolve all outstanding issues and inconsistencies" feeding fears it may have a weapons program.
ElBaradei played down U.S. fears of a possible nuclear weapons-related test site in Iran.
A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, accused the IAEA on Thursday of keeping silent about concerns over Iran's Parchin complex, southeast of Tehran, which the official said was being used to test high explosives, possibly for use with nuclear weapons.
Iran denied the accusations, and ElBaradei said Friday that his agency does not "have any indication that this site had any nuclear-related activity."