Iran threatened to reconsider its promise of allowing unfettered inspections of its nuclear facilities on Tuesday if it is referred to the U.N. Security Council (search) for possible sanctions over its atomic program.
However, its top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani (search), offered Europe a new round of talks, saying the world should give Iran's new government a chance to reach a political understanding.
Larijani also said the United States and Europe should learn lessons from the North Korean nuclear issue and recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium now rather than later.
"If they want to speak with Iran with the language of force, Iran will have no choice, in order to preserve its technological achievements, to get out of the framework of the NPT (Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (search)) and the additional protocol and resume (uranium) enrichment," Larijani told a news conference. The protocol calls for open inspections atomic facilities if Iran is referred to the Security Council.
Western diplomats in Vienna said a U.S.-backed European Union resolution calling for referral could be introduced at the current meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (search) 35-nation board, but any vote could be postponed.
Larijani also warned that Iran will react harshly if IAEA passes a resolution setting a deadline over its nuclear activities.
"If they set a deadline, it will, from Iran's point of view, make no difference from being referred to the U.N. Security Council and Iran will react in the same manner," he said.
Larijani said nuclear technology has become a matter of national pride in Iran and that his government will not compromise over its right to enrich uranium.
Britain, Germany and France, negotiating on behalf of the 25-nation European Union (search), have begun drafting a resolution demanding Iran be referred to the Security Council. But Europeans face opposition from other members of the IAEA board, which opened a meeting Monday to discuss Iran's nuclear program.
Larijani urged the European troika to get back to the negotiating table.
"We are telling the three European countries that we are ready for talks but within the framework of the NPT. ... It's a good opportunity for them to play a good role," he said.
Larijani cited the example of North Korea, saying the United States has been forced to recognize that country's right to enrich uranium after years of dialogue.
"The North Korean nuclear issue can give the United States and Europeans lessons to learn. What was the result of so many pressures on North Korea?" he asked.
"Finally, they had to recognize North Korea's right to enrich uranium. ... They should recognize Iran's right now."
The IAEA has been trying to determine if gaps in Iranian reporting on more than 18 years of clandestine nuclear activity are attempts to hide military involvement in what Iran insists is a purely civilian program to generate electricity. Establishing such involvement would bolster arguments by Washington and its allies that Iran's program is a cover for making nuclear arms.
Board members China and Russia -- both Security Council members with veto power -- oppose hauling Iran before the U.N.'s top decision-making body. But diplomats say the Russians could change their mind, which is the rationale for possibly delaying a vote.
Backers of the Security Council option now only have a slim majority among board nations, but with Russia on board, more support would swing their way, one diplomat told The Associated Press.
The Russians "want a little more time to see how the discussions go on Iran" within the IAEA, instead of immediate referral, said another. They spoke anonymously as a condition for discussing the behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) also hinted that, while referral was a near certainty, when that might happen was undecided.
"I'm quite certain that at some point in time Iran is going to be referred to the Security Council, particularly if Iran continues to demonstrate that it is not prepared to give the international community assurances that it is not going to try to build a nuclear weapons program under cover of civil nuclear power," she told reporters Monday at the United Nations.
The confidential draft resolution on referral, shared in part with the AP, requests that IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei report to the Security Council "Iran's many failures and breaches of its obligations to comply" with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The draft also asks the council to expand the IAEA's inspection powers in Iran and to request that Iran resume a recently broken freeze on activities linked to uranium enrichment -- the possible pathway to nuclear weapons.
A U.S. official predicted any vote on the draft would be close. Like the Europeans, he demanded anonymity as a condition for discussing the sensitive behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
Washington and the Europeans started to lobby jointly for Security Council referral last month, after Iran effectively walked away from talks with the EU trio and resumed uranium conversion. The process of conversion is a precursor to enrichment, which can make nuclear fuel or weapons-grade uranium.
Diplomats accredited to the IAEA have suggested Iran may announce it is ready to grant agency experts access to high-ranking military officials or military sites. Any such concessions by Iran could increase the number of countries opposed to Security Council referral and leave the Europeans and the Americans in the minority.