The Bush administration said Wednesday the prospect of a U.N. Security Council referral for Iran over its nuclear program is more likely than ever. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is engaged in telephone diplomacy on the issue following Iran's move this week to resume work at previously-sealed nuclear sites.
Bush administration officials have long expected the Iran nuclear issue to end up in the Security Council, which could impose far-reaching sanctions against Tehran for its non-compliance with nuclear accords.
Officials say that prospect is even more likely now following Iran's decision this week to break internationally-monitored seals on at least three of its nuclear sites to clear the way for renewed uranium enrichment.
State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Iran has forced the political confrontation by responding with silence, obfuscation or deception to efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the European Union, and others to ascertain its true nuclear intentions.
"I think we are fast approaching a decision point on what diplomatic next steps the international community is going to be taking. We are in close contact with the EU-Three and others on this issue, and I would only add that it is more likely than ever that Iran is headed to the Security Council concerning their failure to live up to their international obligations," he said.
Spokesman McCormack said the convening of an emergency meeting of the IAEA governing board is an option under discussion among concerned governments.
U.S. officials, encouraged by the broad-based international condemnation of Iran's latest moves, say they're confident there are enough votes on the 35-nation board to refer the matter to the Security Council.
Secretary of State Rice is leading U.S. telephone diplomacy on the issue, speaking Wednesday with IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, who is reported to have been insulted by Iran's unilateral decision to remove the IAEA seals from the nuclear sites.
ElBaradei has not embraced the long-held U.S. view that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program. But he has expressed serious concern about the latest Iranian action, which he said has added to the country's record of less than full transparency about its nuclear activities.
Secretary Rice also spoke twice Wednesday with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, and had a State Department meeting with South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, whose country is on the IAEA governing board.
The South African official told reporters after the meeting she did not want to say in advance what South Africa's vote in the IAEA might be, but said her country would be part of a collective decision by the board.
She also said South Africa is committed to multilateral diplomacy, and that a Security Council referral of the nuclear issue need not be the end of efforts by the EU-Three and others to negotiate an accord that resolves concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"Well, I think even if it goes to the U.N. Security Council, talks would still have to continue," she said. "So I think talking cannot stop, because even if the matter goes to the Security Council, what happens there? There still has to be discussion about what happens, so either way, discussions must continue in or outside there."
Spokesman McCormack had a similar comment, saying the hope is that when Iran finds itself hauled before the Security Council, it will be an incentive to engage in serious negotiations.
He said the prospect of U.N. sanctions aside, Iran has already suffered consequences in that it is almost completely isolated internationally over its nuclear stance.
He joined his White House counterpart Scott McClellan in suggesting that Iranian authorities may have seriously miscalculated what the international response would be to their decision to reopen the nuclear sites.