VIENNA, AUSTRIA -- The 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency delayed a vote on a landmark resolution on Iran's nuclear program yesterday, largely because of American opposition to a clause indirectly criticizing Israel's nuclear weapons status, according to several diplomats.
The countries that sit on the decision-making council of the world's nuclear watchdog agency will meet again today.
Several diplomats said that it was unlikely that the problem would derail passage of the resolution, which would report Iran's case to the United Nations Security Council for the first time and which enjoys the support of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.
But many of them insisted that the United States would have to back down from its position and predicted that the resolution might not pass with as strong a majority as they had hoped.
The problem arose when Egypt insisted that the draft resolution include a specific mention of support for the creation of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East.
Egypt and other Arab states routinely demand references to a "nuclear-free zone" in the Middle East in Security Council documents, arguing that Israel - which has never admitted that it has nuclear weapons and unlike Iran has never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty - should be part of a general security framework in the Middle East that bans such weapons.
In the current debate, Egypt has argued that if a resolution is passed that makes the Security Council a player in considering Iran's nuclear program, it must include language about a nuclear-free Middle East.
But the problem has exposed a split between the Americans, who oppose the Egyptian demand, and Russia, China and the Europeans, who support it.
Britain circulated a new informal draft that added a clause that recognized that "a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue would contribute to the goal of a Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery."
The language reflects the official position of the 25-member European Union. In a statement by European foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium, last week that sharply criticized Iran for reopening its uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, for example, the reference to a nuclear-free Middle East was included.
But the United States has taken the position that such a reference could be used by Iran as a propaganda weapon against Israel, four senior diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity under normal diplomatic constraints.
"The Americans are worried that once it is there, it will stay there forever and allow the Iranians to hide behind it," one ambassador involved in the negotiations said.
Last night, the Europeans were pressing the Americans to change their position, other ambassadors said.
"It's five against one," one European ambassador said.
Another key ambassador called the Americans "dogmatists," predicting that in order to pass the resolution, "the Americans will have to give in."
But one Western official predicted that the American position would prevail.
"This resolution is about Iran," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under normal diplomatic rules.
Gregory Schulte, the American ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, told reporters that he expected strong support when a vote is taken.
"We are convinced we have a solid majority for the resolution that reports Iran to the Security Council," he said. "And that majority is growing."
Diplomats met behind closed doors throughout the day to meet some of the other demands by countries in the 16-member nonaligned bloc, which want to delete all references to the Security Council or at least delay any report to New York until after the IAEA makes its full assessment of Iran's nuclear program in March.
The current text is a compromise between the American push for immediate action against Iran by the Security Council and Russia's preference for a monthlong delay for more diplomacy.