The International Atomic Energy Agency praised Iran yesterday for suspending its uranium-enrichment work and removed an immediate threat of sanctions against the Islamic republic, which built its program in secret over 18 years.
The resolution endorses an agreement Iran struck with Britain, France and Germany two weeks ago to suspend its nuclear activity in exchange for assurances that it will not be referred to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.
The European trio began negotiating with Iran a year ago in the hope of slowing its nuclear advances and convincing Washington the issue could be solved through diplomacy. Iran has maintained that its nuclear program was for producing energy, but others have suspected that it could be diverted to making weapons.
The passage of the resolution marked a new chapter for the Islamic republic, despite the questions about its nuclear ambitions, and made it clear there was little international support for the Bush administration's drive to ratchet up diplomatic pressure against Iran.
The Bush administration did not block the IAEA resolution but criticized it afterward and said for the first time that it is willing to take Iran to the Security Council on its own.
Meanwhile, Iran's leaders claimed the resolution as a diplomatic victory, while U.S. officials expressed disappointment the international community did not take a harder line.
Diplomats and nuclear experts said the resolution dramatically alters the way Iran will now be judged by the international community and could make it easier for the United States to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council if it violates the suspension, officials and nuclear experts said.
"This is really a win-win situation for the administration," said Robert Einhorn, who was assistant secretary for nonproliferation policy at the State Department from November 1999 to August 2001.
"Iran's nuclear progress is impeded as long as it keeps up the suspension, and if they are seen as breaking the pledge, the administration can claim that as a way to take it to the council," Einhorn said.
Iran is legally entitled to enrich uranium to fuel nuclear power reactors, but the same process can be used to make the key ingredient of an atomic bomb. The Tehran government is agreeing -- for the moment -- to do neither. But it is also preserving the capacity to reverse that decision at will.
U.S. policymakers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they would now turn their attention to negotiations Iran will hold with Britain, France and Germany. The European countries want the talks to produce a commitment from Iran to give up its nuclear programs. But Iranian officials say they are determined to hold on to their right to develop a nuclear program that could produce a stable energy source.
The White House, convinced that Iran's true intention is to build nuclear weapons, has been skeptical of the new diplomatic track that led to Iran's current suspension deal. But it is taking a wait-and-see approach, U.S. officials said, convinced the negotiations will fall apart within months.
The agreement was negotiated over U.S. objections, and the Bush administration has taken the role of bystander, neither participating in nor supporting the initiative.
For two years, the White House has pushed for tougher diplomatic moves against a country that President Bush once said was a member of an "axis of evil," along with North Korea and Iraq.