WASHINGTON – The Bush administration said the United Nations Security Council (search) must review Iran's nuclear record after a harsh assessment from its nuclear watchdog agency Saturday, and U.S. officials warned that Iran is losing the support of influential friends.
A majority vote against Iran at the U.N. atomic agency was an interim step toward what the Bush administration has long sought — review and punishment by the Security Council that would help derail an alleged secret program to build an Iranian bomb.
"We have a patient long-term strategy," Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns (search) said after the vote. "It's to isolate Iran on this question; it's to ratchet up the international pressure on Iran," and assemble the kind of global coalition against Iran that helped persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons last week.
The 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) in Vienna approved a resolution Saturday that said Iran has a "long history of concealment and deception" in the nuclear program that Tehran insists is only for the peaceful production of nuclear power.
On Sunday, Iran rejected the resolution, with Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki calling it "political, illegal and illogical." He said the action removed any doubt that Britain, France and Germany — the three key European countries that had been negotiating with Iran to try to avert referral to the council — have violated previous agreements with Tehran.
"The three European countries implemented a pre-planned scenario already determined by the United States," Mottaki said on state-run television.
The IAEA resolution does not send Iran directly before the Security Council, which can impose economic sanctions. It finds Iran has not complied with an international arms control treaty and openly doubts Iran's claim about nuclear energy.
The resolution called on the board to consider reporting Iran at a future meeting. Diplomats from countries backing the resolution said it set Iran up for referral as early as November, when the board next meets in regular session.
Burns and Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph (search), who handles arms control matters, said the vote is a significant step toward calling Iran to account. It is not, however, the decisive rebuke that Burns and other U.S. officials had predicted in the weeks leading to the IAEA meeting.
U.S. officials said the open-ended delay gives Iran diplomatic maneuvering room, and they urged Iran to drop provocative actions and return to negotiations with European nations aimed at cutting off any weapons ambitions.
Some outside analysts said the IAEA action is a half measure that represents the best the Bush administration could salvage from a diplomatic effort that met stiff resistance from Russia, China and other powerful nations.
Without effective oversight and immediate consequences at the Security Council, Iran can game the system, said Paul Leventhal, founder of the nonpartisan Nuclear Control Institute.
"Iran is getting away with murder here," and every delay allows the Islamic nation to get closer to a bomb, Leventhal said. "They have been winning the diplomatic game and outmaneuvering the United States," and the IAEA bureaucracy, he said.
President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refuse to rule out a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities if diplomacy fails, but Rice has tried to reassure alarmed European diplomats that the notion is far-fetched.
Ahead of the IAEA meeting, the United States prepared a 44-page power-point presentation for diplomats that includes maps of suspected nuclear sites and detailed satellite images of what the U.S. claims are dummy buildings erected to disguise covert activity below ground.
The United States, which has no diplomatic relations with Iran, has taken a back seat to the European Union in negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program.
Iran rejected a package of economic and security guarantees and walked away from the talks over the summer. It then resumed some nuclear fuel production activity it has voluntarily suspended during negotiations.
Burns said Iran is alienating a broad range of countries by refusing to back down. He said Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, provoked Saturday's vote with a defiant speech about Iranian nuclear rights at the United Nations.
Burns noted India's vote against Iran, and the abstention of other allies or friends Russia, China and South Africa. India was previously seen as supporting Iran's nuclear position and Russia has repeatedly said it opposes Security Council referral. The United States had assumed Russia would vote no.