BERLIN—After Iran ignored warnings not to restart its uranium enrichment research, European leaders on Thursday declared an end to negotiations with the Islamic Republic and called for hauling it before the U.N. Security Council.
The decision marked an escalation in the long-simmering crisis over whether Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons, which would add instability to the Middle East.
The Security Council could impose punitive measures, including economic sanctions, although that's unlikely immediately.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she was confident that the matter would go to the council, asserting that Iran "has chosen confrontation with the international community."
"A very important threshold has been crossed," she said.
She indicated that the United States and its European allies would hold off on pushing for economic sanctions, which Security Council members Russia and China oppose because of their economic stakes in oil-rich Iran.
Instead, U.S. and Western diplomats said, the United States and Europe probably will ask the council to arm the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, the global nuclear watchdog, with greater powers to investigate whether Iran is working on nuclear weapons.
If Tehran then continues to refuse to divulge all aspects of its program to IAEA inspectors, that would give the United States and the European Union leverage to push for punitive measures that eventually could include sanctions.
"There would be a graduated approach in the Security Council," said a senior administration official in Washington who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity. "This is to get new tools for the IAEA."
The European decision to end more than two years of testy negotiations came two days after Iranian engineers broke IAEA seals on several facilities, including a key nuclear center at Natanz, in central Iran.
German Foreign Minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier said that he, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and French Foreign Affairs Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy concluded during a meeting here that they had no choice but to halt the talks, which were to have resumed Jan. 18.
"We hope for a peaceful solution," Steinmeier said. "But it appears the time has come for the Security Council to be informed."
"Our talks with Iran have reached a dead end," he said.
Steinmeier said the ministers would ask the 35-member IAEA board of governors to convene an emergency meeting—expected sometime during the week of Jan. 23—to approve a resolution referring the issue to the council.
A simple majority would be required, but the United States and the European Union are campaigning to assemble as many votes as possible, including those of Russia and China, which previously have opposed referring the issue to the Security Council.
Senior U.S. and European officials are to meet with Russian and Chinese diplomats next week in London, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has been critical of Iran, indicated Thursday that the Kremlin was shifting its position.
The Interfax news agency quoted Lavrov as saying that Iran's action had made it "very difficult" for Moscow to continue opposing a referral to the Security Council.
Iran suspended its uranium enrichment work in November 2004 while it pursued talks with the Europeans on safeguards that would ensure that its nuclear program wouldn't be used for military purposes.
Javier Solana, the European Union's chief foreign-policy official, who attended the Berlin meeting, stressed afterward that "we don't have any problem with the people of Iran."
But, he added, Iran's decision to begin enriching uranium was intolerable and the rest of Europe would support referring the issue to the Security Council.
Controversy has surrounded Iran's program since it was revealed in 2002 that Iran had hidden from IAEA inspectors for nearly 20 years nuclear research and technology that it had obtained from an international black market.
As a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is required to reveal all aspects of its nuclear program to the IAEA.
The IAEA launched an investigation, but complained that Tehran hadn't fully cooperated. In November, the agency declared the Islamic Republic in breach of the treaty but held off reporting it to the Security Council.
Even before Iran unsealed its nuclear facilities, relations with Europe were in decline over recent remarks by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Israel "should be wiped off the map" and denying that the Holocaust had taken place.
Douste-Blazy said he was disappointed that two and half years of working to develop a trusting relationship had been tossed away, and he called for the international community to unite in condemning Iran's actions.
Rice said the United States and Europe would consider not sending the issue to the Security Council if Iran refroze its uranium enrichment work and began cooperating fully with the IAEA.
"Clearly, if Iran wants to return to a course where it suspends these activities, stops threatening the world with its defiance, starts answering the questions of the IAEA ... then I suppose that other courses are open," she said at the State Department.
Rice said it wasn't time to discuss "specific measures that might be taken once we're in the Security Council."
Other diplomats said they were discussing a resolution that would declare Iran in violation of the treaty and demand that it refreeze its enrichment work and fully open its nuclear program to IAEA inspectors.
(Schofield reported from Berlin, Landay from Washington.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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