LONDON, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- The United States, Europe, Russia and China agreed Tuesday to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council over its nuclear programs, ahead of a crunch meeting of the U.N. nuclear watchdog later this week.
Iran immediately criticized the decision, which it said meant an end to negotiations over the ongoing nuclear standoff.
The crisis escalated earlier this month when Tehran announced it was removing U.N. seals from its nuclear facilities, signaling a resumption of uranium enrichment activities.
The United States and Europe suspect the Islamic republic is trying to develop nuclear weapons; however Tehran denies this, insisting its nuclear programs are for energy purposes only.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw announced the move in the early hours after a London dinner meeting of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany. The parties agreed not to take any action against Iran until March, however, after the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency has issued a formal report.
The timetable represents a compromise between the United States, France, Britain and Germany, which had pushed for immediate action against Iran, and Russia and China, which had argued for more time for diplomacy.
A Foreign Office official told United Press International Britain viewed it as "a good outcome" which maintained the international consensus while moving the process forward and increasing the pressure on Iran.
He acknowledged Europe and the United States would have been happy to move more quickly, but said they placed high importance on keeping the international players united. The difference between full referral in February and in March "wasn't seriously important," he said.
The decision was taken after talks in Brussels failed to break the impasse over Iran's nuclear programs.
European foreign ministers met with Iranian representatives on Monday in a last-minute attempt at diplomacy before Thursday's meeting of the IAEA in Vienna.
Javad Vaeedi, deputy head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said the meeting had been positive; however EU ministers said the Iranians had advanced no new ideas.
"The negotiating process has reached an impasse and the involvement of the Security Council is needed to ensure that the requests -- many times repeated -- of the agency are respected," French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said in Brussels.
He told a news briefing the talks had yielded nothing new, but added negotiations could be reopened if Iran complied with IAEA requests.
Foreign ministers stressed the referral of Iran to the Security Council would not be the end of diplomacy. Speaking on behalf of the permanent members and Germany, Straw said ministers had "confirmed their resolve to continue to work for a diplomatic solution to the Iran problem."
But Iran said the involvement of the Security Council would put paid to any possibility of a return to voluntary suspension. "Reporting Iran's dossier to the U.N. Security Council will be unconstructive and the end of diplomacy," top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said Tuesday, according to state television.
Russia and China have so far been reluctant to refer Iran to the U.N., fearing such a move could pave the way for sanctions harmful to their commercial interests. Russia has a $1 billion contract to build Iran's first atomic reactor at Bushehr, while China is heavily reliant on Iranian oil exports for its energy supplies.
Moscow has offered to enrich Iranian uranium on its soil, as a safeguard against the possibility of Iran diverting its nuclear programs for military purposes.
A senior British official said Tuesday a delegation from Moscow and Beijing would be visiting Tehran later this week, when, it is understood, the Russian proposal will be discussed. However Britain was not optimistic an agreement would be reached, he said.
The United States and Britain have dismissed Iran's continued interest in the deal as posturing in order to avert U.N. referral.
"When the Iranians now advance interest in the Russian proposal one has to wonder if that isn't because they now face the prospect of referral to the Security Council," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a news conference before the dinner meeting.
However she rejected suggestions of a split in the Security Council over the best way to deal with Iran.
"Differences on tactics and timings there may be, but I don't see anyone saying to the Iranians that they are on the right side of the issue. The Iranians need to hear that message," she said.
Lord Timothy Garden, a former British assistant chief of defense staff and Liberal Democrat defense spokesman, said the outcome of the talks was the best possible in the circumstances.
"Handling Iran is very tricky at the moment because of the associated problems, Iraq not least, and the difficulty of not forcing Iran into a corner," he told UPI.
"So things that move slowly, give avenues for Iran to change its behavior must be the best way forward. But there is a real problem with the direction that Iran is going in, so if you look at the options open that is perhaps the optimum one."
Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow of non-proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said it was "the very best outcome that the United States and the Europeans could have hoped for."
It was a strong agreement with the only price a delay in full referral, he said. This delay might in fact increase the chances that Iran would voluntarily suspend enrichment, he added, though he was not optimistic.
He told UPI it was unlikely that the Security Council would impose sanctions in March. d A deadline would probably be set for Iran a deadline to suspend its enrichment activities; after which the council might then give the IAEA additional authority for inspections, he said.
Fitzpatrick said Iran's threat to break off negotiations was one the world had to take seriously.
"It's a real threat," he said. "The world has to weigh that threat against the threat of taking no action, and seeing Iran move towards (weapons) capability and break one red line after another, emboldened by seeing no action from the international community."