The United States and other permanent member countries of the U.N. Security Council, including Russia and China, agreed early Tuesday to refer the issue of Iran's nuclear program to the council. The referral will come later this week but any action in the council would not occur until March at the earliest.
The agreement, which U.S. officials describe as a major advance, came at the end of a four-hour ministerial-level dinner meeting of the major powers at the official London residence of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
A joint statement said the five Security Council member countries, and Germany which also took part in the session, agreed that this week's meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency governing board should report the issue of Iran's nuclear program to the council.
In what is seen as a compromise giving Iran time to consider rolling-back recent nuclear moves, the participants said any action on the Security Council should await a report by IAEA Director General Mohamed elBaradei to the following meeting of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, set for March 6th in Vienna.
A senior U.S. official who briefed reporters called the joint statement a very strong message to Iran and a reflection of growing frustration about its recent decision to restart nuclear activities it had agreed to suspend two years ago in talks with Britain, France and Germany.
The official said Iran had been banking on abstentions on the referral issue this week by Russia and China, and that the decision by those two countries to go along puts Iran on the defensive, and under pressure to yield to international concern about its nuclear intentions.
The senior official said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice feels good about the big-power agreement, which he described as the most decisive international action on the Iranian issue in several years.
The United States has insisted that Iran's nominally peaceful nuclear program has a secret weapons component, and had strongly backed a referral to the Security Council.
The council could impose broad sanctions against Iran for violating international nuclear commitments, though the U.S. official said there was minimal discussion and no decision here of what the council might do in March if Iran has not been responsive to demands that it fully disclose its nuclear activities.
At a London news conference Monday, Secretary Rice again said the use of force against Iran was not in prospect, and that a Security Council referral does not signify that diplomatic means to resolve the crisis are nearing exhaustion:
"As to military issues, we have said that it is not on the agenda, because we believe that there is a lot of life left in the diplomacy. There is a diplomatic solution for the taking. After all, going to the Security Council is not the end of diplomacy, it's just diplomacy in a different, more robust context. But the President of the United States doesn't take his options off the table," she said. "Frankly I don't think people should want the President of the United States to take his options off the table."
The big-power statement said the parties confirmed their resolve to work for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian problem.
The six countries said they share serious concerns about Iran's nuclear program and agreed that an extensive period of confidence-building was now required from Tehran.
They called on Iran to restore in full the suspension of uranium enrichment-related activity, including research and development, that it ended three weeks ago.
U.S. officials had been saying for some time they believed there were enough votes in the 35-nation IAEA board to send the issue to the Security Council.
They say the decision by Russia and China to join the big-power consensus assures the action, which is expected by Thursday.