VIENNA, Austria – Iran gained a reprieve in the standoff over its nuclear program Wednesday, with diplomats saying the European Union (search) had decided to postpone its push to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council (search).
The decision to delay a vote until a later board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) instead of demanding one this week appeared driven by concerns about strong opposition. More than a dozen of the 35 IAEA board member nations meeting in Vienna — including Security Council members Russia and China — are against the idea.
Although a new EU draft motion does not mention Security Council sanctions, it still calls for reporting Iran to the council if it continues defying board demands, which include freezing activities related to uranium enrichment, said senior diplomats accredited to the IAEA.
The text is expected to be introduced at this week's IAEA meeting, but any vote on referral would come only at a future session — at the earliest when the board meets again in November, said the diplomats, who demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss EU strategy at the meeting.
Just hours before the new draft was drawn up, the chief U.S. representative to the IAEA lobbied board members for action this week on the motion. The motion is formally a European Union initiative but is being orchestrated in close consultation with Washington and backed by Australia, Japan, Canada and others at the meeting.
"We agree with the European Union and a growing majority of the board that the time has come to report Iran's (nuclear) noncompliance to the Security Council," U.S. delegation head Gregory Schulte told the meeting. "It is now time for the board to do our duty."
Still, a diplomat familiar with U.S. thinking said the decision to postpone referral suited Washington, which was not interested in losing a Security Council battle against veto-carrying members Russia and China.
"Our goal is to build the broadest possible consensus," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Wednesday.
The threat of referral is not being withdrawn. "It is a question of not if, but when" the contentious issue will go to the council, Ereli said.
The U.S. diplomatic mission dealing with the IAEA in Vienna declined comment when asked about the developments. A European official — who also demanded anonymity as a condition for discussing EU strategy — said China appeared rigid in its opposition but "the key is to gain Russia, and we think we can gain Russia at a later date."
In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the U.S. and European initiative to refer Tehran to the Security Council as counterproductive, saying it "will not contribute to the search for a solution to the Iranian problem through political and diplomatic means."
Although it avoids any mention of U.N. sanctions, the new EU text proposes the Security Council consider "making clear to Iran" that the crisis can "best be resolved" by cooperating with IAEA investigators.
Washington insists Iran has breached the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (search), as did North Korea (search), which unilaterally quit the pact two years ago but announced Monday that it would give up its nuclear weapons program.
But Iran insists its nuclear activities have not violated the treaty. Iranian Vice President Gholmanreza Aghazadeh (search), the head of his country's nuclear program, told reporters in Vienna that "leaving the NPT is not on the agenda of Iran."
He spoke after meeting representatives from Russia, China and the Nonaligned Movement (search), which also overwhelmingly oppose the U.S.-European motion.
Iran's top nuclear negotiator met Wednesday with ambassadors of the three European countries trying to curb Tehran's nuclear program, urging them to engage in "forward-looking cooperation" with the Persian state, state-run radio reported.
Ali Larijani also told the envoys of Britain, France and Germany to reiterate to their leaders that Iran would not budge on its plans to pursue a nuclear program in line with the treaty.
Tehran says its nuclear program is solely for energy production, despite U.S. and EU concerns that it can be used for nuclear weapons.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan (search) said Wednesday that President Bush believes Iran needs to return to the negotiating table with the Europeans.
"We've expressed our concerns about Iran's behavior," McClellan said. "They have a long history of deceiving the international community, of not abiding by their international obligations, and that's why we remain concerned about their true intentions."
Tehran has warned that if referred to the Security Council, it could start uranium enrichment — a possible step toward making nuclear arms. On Tuesday, it said it could stop allowing unfettered IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities and programs if the agency's board involves the Security Council.
Aghazadeh repeated those warnings during Wednesday's closed meeting with the Russians, Chinese and nonaligned delegates, a diplomat familiar with the discussions said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the information is confidential.
Aghazadeh, in Moscow on Monday, said Iran would welcome other nations in its ongoing talks with European negotiators, and the new Iranian government wants to increase its cooperation with Russia, whose role in helping build a nuclear reactor in Iran has added to U.S. concerns.