WASHINGTON—The war of words over Iran's nuclear program grew harsher Wednesday, as Iran threatened to inflict "harm and pain" on the United States in retaliation for any U.S.-led effort to force the Islamic republic to abandon its uranium enrichment work.
Iranian Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh delivered the warning in Vienna, Austria, during the final day of a three-day meeting of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors to discuss Iran's nuclear program. Last month, the IAEA board voted to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council for refusing to halt uranium enrichment work, but it agreed to delay the action for a month to allow more negotiations.
Separate initiatives involving Russia and the European Union, however, have failed to persuade Tehran to give up enrichment work, and the IAEA board adjourned without changing its Feb. 4 resolution. That means the Security Council could begin considering the issue as early as next week.
Soltanieh didn't specify how Iran might retaliate against the United States for its push for U.N. action, but analysts said that Iran has an array of options, including attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and pushing oil prices higher by cutting exports.
"We are not naive about the United States' sensation and desire to flex muscles. But we also see the bone fractures underneath," Soltanieh said. "The United States has the power to cause harm and pain. But the United States is susceptible to harm and pain.
"If that is the path that the U.S. wishes to choose, let the ball roll," he said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan urged Iran to reconsider its position.
"The (Iranian) regime would be better served by making a decision to work with the international community ... instead of continuing to engage in provocative statements and take defiant steps," he said.
Enrichment is the refining process that produces uranium fuel for power plants. But the same technology can be used to produce more highly enriched fuel for nuclear warheads, and the United States has said that it believes Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of civilian nuclear power.
In its February resolution, the IAEA board charged that Iran hadn't disclosed all aspects of its nuclear program and said the program might not be "exclusively for peaceful purposes."
Of major concern to the agency are Iran's purchases of weapons-related know-how from a smuggling ring led by Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, and information suggesting Iranian military involvement in a warhead design effort.
Iran insists that it's pursuing enrichment strictly for peaceful purposes, but it has admitted that it concealed its program from IAEA inspectors for 18 years.
Wednesday's harsh Iranian rhetoric followed warnings by Vice President Dick Cheney and other U.S. officials this week that Tehran would suffer "meaningful consequences" unless it abandoned its enrichment effort.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei expressed concern over the bellicose statements and appealed for "coolheaded approaches."
"We need people to lower the rhetoric," he said.
Some analysts saw the Iranian threat as a reflection of fears in Tehran that the warnings from Cheney and others were a prelude to a U.S. military strike on Iranian nuclear sites or a U.S. campaign for Security Council sanctions.
But U.S. officials stressed that the United States was committed to a diplomatic strategy that would first focus on having the council reaffirm calls for Iran to halt enrichment and cooperate with IAEA investigators.
Only if Iranian defiance persisted did the United States "believe that the world community should entertain the possibility of sanctions," Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told a House International Relations Committee hearing Wednesday.
U.S., British and French diplomats held preliminary consultations at the United Nations on Wednesday afternoon. They later met with their counterparts from China and Russia, which also are permanent council members and can veto any proposed council action.
Several U.S. officials and independent experts warned that it would be extremely tough for the Bush administration to rally other countries to support sanctions. Russia and China have substantial financial stakes in oil-rich Iran and are opposed to sanctions and any use of force.
Moreover, U.S. officials and experts said, Iran has multiple options for retaliating.
"One of the quickest and easiest ways for Iran to counterattack would be to step up the violence in Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously," said a U.S. military official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the press.
Iranian officials also have suggested that Iran, the world's No. 4 oil producer, could take steps to force up world petroleum prices, such as cutting exports.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA Iranian-targets officer who's now with the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, said Iran's fragile economy couldn't withstand losing oil revenues and that its "most lethal response" would be sponsoring a terrorist strike against U.S. targets outside Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ray Takeyh, with the Council on Foreign Relations, a policy institute, said that while Iran could sponsor attacks on U.S. targets and cut its oil exports, it's more likely to step up its responses gradually, first by further reducing its cooperation with the IAEA.
The Iranian warning, he said, "does demonstrate that American coercion is going to be met by Iranian escalation."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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