LONDON -- The five nations with permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council agreed at a crisis meeting yesterday that Iran must suspend attempts to make nuclear fuel, but Russia and China stopped short of demanding that Iran be referred to the Security Council for possible sanctions.
The British Foreign Office, host of the meeting, said the five - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - plus Germany had shown "serious concern over Iranian moves to restart uranium enrichment activities."
They agreed on the need for Iran to "return to full suspension," according to a statement.
While Russia and China were unwilling to endorse sanctions now, they did agree not to block a call by Britain, France and Germany for an emergency session of the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation governing board, which will consider referring Iran to the United Nations for possible sanctions. The IAEA board will convene Feb. 2.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, en route to Liberia, said she wanted the IAEA to vote on referral "as soon as possible."
But Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Moscow, said "the positions of Russia, Germany, the European Union and the United States are very close" and warned that "it is necessary to work carefully and avoid any sharp, erroneous moves."
Russia maintains close ties with Tehran and is building Iran's first nuclear power plant at the Persian Gulf port of Bushehr. Russian cooperation is considered crucial to any diplomatic solution.
Speaking on Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio last week, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the Iran predicament "very acute," and suggested that Moscow has begun to share U.S. and European concerns about the risks inherent in an Iranian nuclear program. If the Russians lose patience with Iran, they could help bring the Chinese on board.
As a possible solution, Moscow has offered to enrich Iran's uranium in Russia, thereby ensuring that Iran would not make the fissile material needed for weapons.
Yesterday, Tehran indicated a new willingness to consider the Russian offer.
"This is a good initiative to resolve the situation. We believe that Iran and Russia should find a way out of this jointly," Iran's ambassador to Moscow, Gholamreza Ansari, said on Russian television.
This month, the Iranians cracked the seals on the uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz, provoking the Europeans to declare that their 2 1/2 -year effort to find a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear ambitions had reached a dead end.
Iran insists that its nuclear intentions are peaceful. It further insists that as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it has a legal right to develop a uranium-enrichment capability and to produce low-enriched uranium to fuel its power plants.
IAEA officials agree that Iran's undertakings are legal, but that 18 years of clandestine nuclear activity have resulted in a "trust deficit."
There is little doubt that Iran wants a bomb. Iranian leaders have noticed that the United States seems to treat nuclear powers with more respect.
Israel is the country that would be made most uneasy about an Iranian nuclear weapon. But despite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's bellicose statements about "wiping Israel off the map," it is considered highly unlikely that Iran would be reckless enough to engage Israel in a nuclear exchange in which Tehran would be the certain loser.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has warned that if the IAEA refers Iran to the U.N. Security Council, Iran would no longer permit the agency to make spot inspections of its nuclear sites.
That would be a serious blow to the international community, which knows a lot about Iran's nuclear program but suddenly would find itself in the dark.
Iran also could withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That would greatly weaken the pact and illustrate to others interested in nuclear weapons how they can use the treaty to obtain the necessary technology, then pull out once they are able to build a bomb.
But Iran's main weapon against the West is oil. Over the weekend, Economy Minister Davoud Danesh-Jafari said that "any possible sanctions from the West could possibly, by disturbing Iran's political and economic situation, raise oil prices beyond the levels the West expects."
Gernot Erler, Germany's deputy foreign minister, underscored another problem for the United States and Europe: "We are seeing desperate measures by Asian countries, mainly China, India and others, to get hold of energy resources, and for them Iran is a partner they cannot do without."
The Chinese government said yesterday that "all relevant sides should remain restrained and stick to resolving the Iranian nuclear issue through negotiations." But President Bush has refused to rule out using military force against Iran, and over the weekend senators from both parties concurred.
Tom Hundley and Alex Rodriguez write for the Chicago Tribune. Tribune news services contributed to this article.