WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The U.S. and European drive to rebuke Iran over its nuclear activities ran into new difficulties yesterday, raising doubts about whether the International Atomic Energy Agency would refer Iran quickly to the U.N. Security Council for possible punitive action, European diplomats said.
The diplomats said that Russian resistance to pressing the case against Iran, as the West wants, when the atomic energy agency board meets Feb. 2, made it increasingly unlikely that the board would adopt the kind of resolution being sought by the United States and Europe.
President Bush said in a speech yesterday at the University of Kansas that the West could be "blackmailed" if Iran were to get a nuclear weapon. But he also sought to address the Iranian people, telling them that the dispute was with their leaders, not them.
Another blow to Western efforts to press Iran came yesterday from Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the atomic energy agency, the U.N. nuclear monitoring body. ElBaradei rebuffed a U.S. and European request to issue a sweeping "progress report" on Iran's case in the next few weeks, presumably condemning its nuclear activities.
In letters written to U.S. and other ambassadors to the atomic agency, ElBaradei said that "a detailed report will only be available" in March, but that the agency would provide "an update brief in February on where it stands in its investigation of outstanding issues."
A European diplomat, who along with other diplomats spoke on the condition of anonymity because the agency's board of governors has not taken an official position yet on ElBaradei's letter, said that without a tough assessment on Iran from the director general, it would be very difficult to get the board to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council, as the United States and Europe are seeking.
Taken together, ElBaradei's move and the Russian resistance to an early referral posed the threat of a major setback for the West in its efforts to isolate Iran diplomatically at an early date.
Bush's comment yesterday appeared to reflect a growing consensus in the West that if sanctions are eventually considered for Iran, they will not be likely to include an oil embargo or other steps that might cause resentment among Iranians or hardship in Europe and the United States.
He repeated the call for the atomic energy agency's board to refer Iran's case to the U.N. Security Council, but said, "I also want the Iranian people to hear loud and clear, and that is, we have no beef with you."
U.S. officials say that if there are sanctions, they will not bar Iranians from traveling abroad for sports or cultural events.
An effort to persuade the agency's board to refer Iran's case to the Security Council has been U.S. policy for more than a year, but the Bush administration has deferred to Britain, France and Germany, which continued until recently to negotiate with Iran over a suspension and an eventual permanent dismantling of its nuclear enrichment activities.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Washington, however, that it remained administration policy to seek a referral vote at the board's Feb. 2 meeting.
"The Iranians have done plenty for a referral at this point in time," Rice said, mentioning Iran's decision earlier this month to end its moratorium on enrichment and reprocessing of uranium. "It seems to me that the case for referral is very strong and that's what we intend to seek at the IAEA board of governors meeting."
Iran defends its nuclear activities as legal, asserting that because they are part of a civilian energy program or normal research activities they are permitted under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. U.S. and European diplomats, citing Iran's failure to disclose many of its activities, say they are part of a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
It would take a majority of the atomic energy agency's 35 board members to refer Iran formally to the Security Council. Rice reiterated yesterday that the United States believes it has the votes.
But some European diplomats argue that a referral without Russian and Chinese support would send a mixed message. As an alternative to a referral, Russia wants the agency merely to report Iran's activities at its meetings on Feb. 2 and 3, and let the Security Council consider them.
The difference between a report and a referral was described by diplomats as significant. "A referral implies action," said a European official. "It implies a request for action by the Security Council. It also implies handing the matter over to the council for action. A report does not imply those things."