LONDON—Russia and China agreed Tuesday to join the United States and its European allies in voting to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council for resuming uranium enrichment work and failing to disclose all facets of its nuclear program to U.N. inspectors.
The accord appeared to represent a major diplomatic breakthrough for the Bush administration and the European Union, which suspect Iran of concealing a nuclear weapons program behind the cover of what it claims to be a civilian nuclear project.
Russia and China, which have huge financial stakes in Iran, had been resisting the vote, which is due to be held at an emergency two-day U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors meeting beginning Thursday in Vienna, Austria.
Their about-face underscored the depths of their frustrations with the hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime and made it likely that a majority of the 35-member IAEA board of governors would vote to haul the Islamic republic before the Security Council, which can impose economic sanctions.
"This is a very good agreement ... that sends a very powerful message to Iran," said a senior State Department official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "They can't depend on Russia and China to block action."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hashed out the accord in four hours of late-night talks with her counterparts from Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and European Union officials who have been spearheading negotiations with Iran. The United States, Russia, China, Britain and France are the veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council.
The wording of a statement on the agreement was finalized at 1 a.m. Tuesday.
In the statement, which was released by the British Foreign Office, the ministers said they "shared concerns about Iran's nuclear program and agreed that an extensive period of confidence-building was required by Iran."
The ministers called on Iran to resume under IAEA monitoring its more than two-year suspension in uranium enrichment work, which ended on Jan. 10.
Enrichment is the process that produces low-enriched uranium for power plants and highly enriched uranium for nuclear warheads depending on how long it's conducted.
The ministers agreed that the IAEA board of governors "should report to the Security Council its decision on steps required by Iran and should also report ... all IAEA reports and resolutions ... relating to this issue."
They agreed to urge the Security Council to delay any action against Iran until IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei presents a March 6 board of governors meeting with an updated report on Iran's compliance with demands to fully address unanswered questions about its nuclear program.
That provision was designed to give Iran time to answer those questions and was apparently a key to winning over Russia and China.
The U.S. official said Rice wanted to bring Beijing and Moscow on board in order to send "a powerful message" to Iran's theocratic government that the international community was united.
Russia and China have made clear that they oppose sanctions on Iran, and there was no indication in the statement that they had changed their minds.
But bringing them to the Security Council could strengthen the IAEA's hand.
Iran, the world's fourth largest oil producer, has threatened to retaliate by ending its cooperation with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency and taking other moves that could increase world oil prices.
Iran insists that it has the right to conduct peaceful uranium enrichment work under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of the international system to curb the spread of nuclear arms.
But it admitted in 2002 that it kept its nuclear program secret for nearly two decades, during which it purchased know-how and technologies to enrich uranium from an international smuggling network led by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
For the past three years, Iran has failed to provide IAEA inspectors with all of the details of its dealings with the Khan network, including its work on centrifuges, the devices that spin uranium hexafluoride gas at high speeds into enriched uranium.
The IAEA board of governors voted in September to hold Iran in violation of its NPT obligations to disclose all aspects of its program to agency inspectors, but it delayed referring the matter to the Security Council to provide time to EU negotiators to resolve the standoff with Iran.
But Iran's decision to unfreeze its uranium work brought those talks to a halt.
The agreement early Tuesday came only hours after EU negotiators rejected a last-ditch effort by Iran to win a delay in the IAEA board of governors vote.
Iran presented what it said were new ideas on a Russian proposal under which enrichment of uranium for Iranian power plants would take place on Russian territory.
But the Europeans said they saw nothing new in the Iranian ideas because they continued to call for Iran to be able to continue doing some enrichment work.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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