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Votes appear lined up to refer Iran to U.N. Security Council

VIENNA, Austria—The United Nations' atomic watchdog agency is expected to report Iran's nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council within days, and Western diplomats worked to build a broad consensus for the action at an emergency meeting Thursday in Vienna.

The International Atomic Energy Agency will meet again Friday, when a European-sponsored resolution on Iran is likely to pass over the objections of a handful of the agency's 35-nation board of governors.

Iran remained defiant, insisting it has full rights to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, warned Thursday in a terse letter to Mohamed ElBaradei, the U.N. agency's director, that a referral to the Security Council "would be the final blow to the confidence of the Islamic Republic of Iran."

Iran "would have no other choice but to suspend all the voluntary measures and extra cooperation with the agency," Larijani wrote. "In that case, the agency's monitoring would be limited and all the peaceful nuclear activities being under voluntary suspension would be resumed without any restriction."

Hauling Iran before the Security Council would be a diplomatic victory for the Bush administration, which for years has voiced concern that Iran's uranium enrichment work could lead to the development of nuclear weapons.

ElBaradei emphasized that the Security Council would take no action on the resolution until after he completes a report in March. He said that would give Iran a month to comply or compromise, for example by accepting an offer to enrich its uranium in Russia.

"We are reaching a critical phase, but it is not a crisis situation," ElBaradei said in Vienna. "This is about confidence-building. It's not about an imminent threat."

In September, the IAEA found Iran in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty after Iran had concealed sensitive nuclear activities for 18 years. At the time, the agency postponed sending its findings to the Security Council in hopes that Iran would stop nuclear fuel work and cooperate with investigators. Instead, Iran resumed small-scale enrichment work on Jan. 10.

The move, accompanied by increasingly provocative statements by Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, nudged even reluctant nations toward supporting the resolution. A draft of the resolution refers to "the absence of confidence that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes resulting from the history of concealment of Iran's nuclear activities."

Support from China and Russia—which hold veto power on the board along with the United States, Britain and France—is crucial to the success of the draft.

Russian negotiators succeeded in softening the language of the resolution, removing the word "noncompliance" and excising references to U.N. statutes that permit sanctions. A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations, said no other major amendments were expected and called the resolution "a done deal."

Grigory Berdennikov, the Russian ambassador to the agency, said he now supported sending a "serious signal" to Iran about its nuclear program and had no objections to the draft. China likewise stood poised to accept the resolution, though with a stern reminder that diplomacy remains the best solution to the impasse.

"China hopes Iran resumes suspension of all nuclear research and development and resumes talks with the European Union as soon as possible," Chinese Ambassador Wu Hailong told the meeting. "In the meantime, we also hope the other side keeps calm and demonstrates patience and flexibility so as to avoid complicating the situation."

But patience is wearing thin among U.S. officials. A statement delivered by Gregory L. Schulte, the American ambassador to the agency, noted that ElBaradei had issued seven written and three oral reports on Iran's failure to fully cooperate.

In Washington on Wednesday, Robert G. Joseph, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said in a speech that Iran aspired to develop long-range delivery systems that could carry out nuclear strikes against other nations in the Middle East. Joseph pointedly alluded to the Iranian president's widely publicized call for Israel to be "wiped from the face of the earth."

"A nuclear-armed Iran could embolden the leadership in Tehran to advance its aggressive ambitions in and outside of the region, both directly and through the terrorists it supports," Joseph told the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee.

American diplomats in Vienna said they still hoped for a diplomatic resolution to the standoff and stressed that they weren't immediately seeking sanctions against Iran. U.S. intelligence chief John D. Negroponte told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday that Iran probably doesn't yet have the means to make a nuclear bomb.

"We judge that Tehran probably does not yet have a nuclear weapon and probably has not yet produced or acquired the necessary fissile material," Negroponte told the committee in Washington.

"Nevertheless," he added, "the danger that it (Iran) will acquire a nuclear weapon and the ability to integrate it with ballistic missiles Iran already possesses is a reason for immediate concern."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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