VIENNA, Austria -- Iran threatened on Sunday to embark on full-scale uranium enrichment if the U.N. nuclear agency presses for action over its atomic program, and a top U.S. diplomat warned the Islamic republic of possible "painful consequences."
The comments came as the International Atomic Energy Agency's board prepared to meet today to discuss referring Iran to the U.N. Security Council, but delegates said whatever step the council might take would stop far short of sanctions.
John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Sunday there was an urgent need to confront Iran's "clear and unrelenting drive" for nuclear weapons.
Iran "must be made aware that if it continues down the path of international isolation, there will be tangible and painful consequences," Bolton told the conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
But Iran's government cautioned that putting the issue before the Security Council would hurt efforts to resolve the dispute diplomatically.
"If Iran's nuclear dossier is referred to the U.N. Security Council, (large-scale) uranium enrichment will be resumed," Iran's top negotiator, Ali Larijani, told reporters in Tehran. "If they want to use force, we will pursue our own path."
He said Iran had exhausted "all peaceful ways" and that if demands were made contrary to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the nation "will resist."
Larijani said Iran will not abandon nuclear research, or back down from pursuing an atomic program that Tehran insists has the sole purpose of generating electricity with nuclear reactors.
IAEA delegates suggested the U.N. agency's board will not push for confrontation with Iran and said any initial decisions by the Security Council based on the outcome of the meeting will be mild.
They said the most likely action from the council would be a statement urging Iran to resume its freeze on uranium enrichment -- an activity that can make both reactor fuel and the core of nuclear warheads -- and to increase cooperation with the IAEA's probe of the Iranian program.
Even such a mild step could be weeks down the road.
Still, it would formally begin council involvement with Iran's nuclear file, starting a process that could escalate and culminate with political and economic sanctions -- although such action for now is opposed by Russia and China, which can veto Security Council actions.
Bolton said a failure by the Security Council to address Iran would "do lasting damage to the credibility of the council."
"The longer we wait to confront the threat Iran poses," Bolton said, "the harder and more intractable it will become to solve."
Russia and China share the concerns of the United States, France and Britain -- the three other permanent council members with veto power -- that Iran could misuse enrichment for an arms program.
But both have economic and strategic ties with Tehran. While they voted with the majority of IAEA board members at a Feb. 4 meeting to alert the council to suspicions about Iran's nuclear aims, they insisted the council do nothing until after this week's IAEA meeting in Vienna.
Russia is unlikely to agree to strong action while it negotiates with Iran on a plan that would move Tehran's enrichment program to Russian territory as a way of increasing international monitoring and reducing the chances for misuse in arms work.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is due in Washington and New York this week to discuss the status of those talks with Bush administration officials and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Both Tehran and Moscow have said new talks are planned; diplomats in Vienna, who demanded anonymity in return for discussing the situation, said no dates had been set.
In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said Iran could reach an agreement with Russia or the European Union within hours, but did not elaborate. Iran rejected an EU proposal last fall to end enrichment in return for the West providing reactor fuel and economic aid.
Past IAEA board meetings have ended with resolutions taking Iran to task for hindering investigations into a nuclear program that was kept secret for nearly 18 years and more recently urging it to reimpose a freeze on enrichment.
The Feb. 4 resolution asked IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei to report those concerns and others to the Security Council and to formally hand over the complete Iran file to the council. It also asked him to provide the council with his latest report, drawn up for today's IAEA meeting.
That report, made available to The Associated Press last week, said Iran appeared determined to expand uranium enrichment, planning to start setting up thousands of uranium-enriching centrifuges this year.
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