VIENNA, Austria -- Just a day before an international deadline, Iran agreed Sunday not to test any centrifuges as part of a total suspension of nuclear activities that can yield uranium for atomic weapons. Diplomats described the about-face as an effort to avoid possible U.N. sanctions.
Diplomats from the European Union and elsewhere said on condition of anonymity that the International Atomic Energy Agency received a letter from Iran containing a pledge not to test 20 centrifuges during the freeze it agreed to Nov. 7 during negotiations with Britain, France and Germany, who were working on behalf of the European Union.
Diplomats accredited to the IAEA said the Europeans were still checking the offer for loopholes late Sunday and could not conclude that the Iranians had accepted a full freeze until the contents of the letter to the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency were analyzed fully.
But the pledge appeared to resolve a dispute that threatened to escalate at today's IAEA board meeting into consultations on possibly referring Iran to the U.N. Security Council for defying the board. The Security Council could then impose sanctions against Iran.
Still, the commitment came with strings attached. A government official from a board member country said that France, Germany and Britain had accepted an Iranian demand to further water down the language of a draft resolution they wrote for adoption by the board on ways of policing the suspension.
The text to be adopted today now includes a phrase emphasizing that the suspension is not a legal or binding obligation on Tehran's part, he said.
Iran says its program is for generating electricity, but the United States insists Iran is trying to make nuclear weapons. President Bush has called Iran part of an "axis of evil" with North Korea and prewar Iraq.
Uranium enrichment does not violate the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that Iran has signed, but for months Tehran has been under pressure to freeze all related activities to ease fears it might want to use the technology to make weapons.
The three European negotiators of the Nov. 7 deal say the freeze also prohibits the Iranians from running centrifuges for research purposes. The centrifuges spin gas into enriched uranium.
The Iranian promise came less than a day before the 35-nation IAEA board was scheduled to reconvene in Vienna over the enrichment suspension.
Iran had no official comment Sunday on the letter. State television and radio in Tehran were still broadcasting earlier statements from a Foreign Ministry spokesman, who had vowed that Iran would use the centrifuges for research. The Foreign Ministry could not be reached for immediate comment.
"We always had research and development in the past and we will continue that in the future," ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said.
It is not unusual for Iran state media to lag behind developments in diplomatic negotiations.
The IAEA board meeting adjourned in disarray Friday. The pause was meant to give the Iranian government time to approve a total freeze of its program, which can produce both low-grade nuclear fuel and weapons-grade material for the core of nuclear warheads. Delegates also were to decide on further steps in policing Tehran's nuclear activities.
The dispute about what constituted full suspension had dominated the meeting.
The Europeans say the deal committed Iran to full suspension of enrichment and all related activities -- at least while the two sides discuss a pact meant to provide Tehran with EU technical and economic aid and other concessions.
Iranian officials had suggested the issue was not up for debate only hours before details emerged of their letter to the agency.
"Referral to the U.N. Security Council would not be the end of the world," Asefi said in Tehran earlier Sunday.
But as the clock ticked down, EU officials and delegates spoke of the growing likelihood of tough action at the board meeting if Iran remained defiant -- including the start of work on a harsh resolution that could include the threat of U.N. Security Council action.
The draft being informally circulated ahead of today's resumed board meeting contained intentionally weak language on how any freeze would be monitored by the agency in an attempt to entice Tehran to sign on to total suspension.
But -- in return for Sunday's suspension pledge -- Iran wanted further weakening of the language in the text, the senior diplomat said.
On the Net:
International Atomic Energy Agency: www.iaea.org