VIENNA, Austria – The International Atomic Energy Agency reported Iran to the U.N. Security Council on Saturday over fears it wants to produce nuclear arms, raising the stakes in the diplomatic confrontation and prompting Tehran to threaten immediate retaliation.
Of the board's 35 member nations, 27 voted for referral, reflecting more than two years of intense lobbying by the United States and its allies to enlist broad backing for such a move.
Washington critics Cuba, Venezuela and Syria voted against referral, and the other five nations abstained.
Still, the near consensus came at a price for Washington. Long an advocate of firm Security Council action against Iran, including possible political and economic sanctions, the Americans had to settle for what is essentially symbolic referral, for now.
After years of opposition, Russia and China backed the referral last week, bringing support from other nations — including India — that had been waiting for their lead. But in return, Moscow and Beijing demanded that the Americans — and France and Britain, the two other veto-wielding Security Council members — agree to let the Iran issue rest until at least March.
That is when the IAEA board meets again to review the agency's investigation of Iran's nuclear program and its compliance with board demands that it renounce uranium enrichment. That process can produce either fuel for a nuclear reactor or the material needed to build a warhead.
"The path chosen by Iran's new leaders — threats, concealment, and breaking international agreements and IAEA seals — will not succeed and will not be tolerated by the international community," President Bush said in a statement.
Iran remained defiant, threatening to do precisely what referral was meant to prevent. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered the resumption of uranium enrichment and an end to snap IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities, according to state television.
"As of Sunday, the voluntary implementation of the additional protocol and other cooperation beyond the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has to be suspended under the law," Ahmadinejad said in a letter to Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who also is the head of the nation's nuclear agency.
Javed Vaeidi, deputy head of Iran's powerful National Security Council, also said his country "now has to implement fuller scale of enrichment."
Iran says it wants to enrich only to make nuclear fuel for generating electricity, but concerns that it might misuse the technology accelerated the chain of events that led to Saturday's referral to the Security Council. Tehran took IAEA seals off enrichment equipment Jan. 10 and said it would resume small-scale activities.
Vaeidi also said a proposal to enrich Iranian uranium in Russia was dead.
Moscow has suggested that Iran shift its plan for large-scale enrichment of uranium to Russian territory to alleviate international concern Iran might use the process to develop an atomic bomb.
Other Iranian comment reflected Tehran's fury at Washington. The Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar describing U.S. leaders as "terrorists and the main axis of evil in the world."
Najjar was responding to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who at a high-level security conference in Munich, Germany, repeated Washington's view of Iran as the "world's leading state sponsor of terrorism."
Sen. John McCain, speaking at the same conference, said military action could not be ruled out if diplomatic efforts fail to stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.
European leaders expressed support for the referral, through a resolution drafted by France, Britain and Germany on behalf of the European Union.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the vote showed "the international community's determination to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East."
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said through a spokesman that he hoped the vote would send "a clear signal to Iran that it must comply with the demands of the international community."
Russia's government urged Iran to "respond constructively" to the IAEA's decision, "including the restoration of a voluntary moratorium on all uranium enrichment works."
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the "convincing" vote sent a "clear signal to Tehran" to take account of international concerns.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said he was "very concerned and upset" by Iran's decision to retaliate.
The IAEA resolution links Tehran's referral to the country's breaches of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the lack of confidence it is not trying to make weapons.
The text expresses "serious concerns about Iran's nuclear program" and recalls "Iran's many failures and breaches of its obligations" to the arms control treaty. It also expresses "the absence of confidence that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes."
The resolution says IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei should "report to the Security Council" the steps Iran needs to take to dispel suspicions about its nuclear ambitions.
These include that it return to freezing uranium enrichment; consider stopping construction of a heavy-water reactor that could be the source of plutonium; formally ratify the agreement allowing the IAEA greater inspecting authority; and give the nuclear watchdog more power in its investigation of Iran's nuclear program.
The draft also asks that ElBaradei share with the Security Council his report to the March 6 IAEA board session and any subsequent resolution.
Chief British IAEA delegate Peter Jenkins urged Iran to heed the resolution before March, warning: "Should Iran fail to comply ... it will fall to the Security Council to bring additional pressure to bear."
His American counterpart, Gregory L. Schulte, indirectly acknowledged that the Security Council's hands were tied until March, saying: "We're not talking about sanctions at this stage."
But Straw said that if Iran failed to use the March window of opportunity, Security Council action would be "almost inevitable."
A senior European diplomat familiar with the issue said there was general agreement among the five permanent Security Council members that — if Iran remains defiant beyond March 6 — the council would slowly increase pressure.
A first step could be a council declaration urging Iran to comply with the resolution, the diplomat said on condition of anonymity because the strategy was confidential.
Agreement on the final wording of the text was achieved overnight, only after Washington compromised on a dispute with Egypt over linking fears about Tehran's atomic program to a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction — an indirect reference to Israel.
The final resolution recognized "that a solution to the Iranian issue would contribute to global nonproliferation efforts and ... the objective of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, including their means of delivery."
Israel, which is not an IAEA board member, welcomed Iran's referral and the call for a nuclear-free Middle East. Experts say Israel has the world's sixth-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, but the Jewish state neither acknowledges nor denies having such a program.