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Tehran's defiance grows

Iran: Uranium processing to begin if nuclear program goes to U.N.


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Condoleezza Rice

VIENNA, Austria (CNN) -- The International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors ended its first session in disagreement over whether to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council for its nuclear program.

The Islamic state said it would start enriching uranium if the issue of its nuclear activities was sent to the council.

Iran has said it is pursuing nuclear research for peaceful purposes. The United States and other countries accuse Iran of trying to build nuclear weapons.

"There is a disagreement among board members whether to report the Iranian issue now to the Security Council or at a later stage," IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said Thursday.

If the board agrees to the delay, it could help bolster the opportunity for negotiations to get Iran to halt its nuclear activities.

ElBaradei said all of the members agree that the Security Council should not take any action, namely impose any sanctions against Iran, until he presents his report on Iran's nuclear program to the board in March.

Thursday's session adjourned around 4:30 p.m. (10:30 a.m. ET). ElBaradei said board members would start consultations on the draft resolution from EU3 -- Britain, France and Germany -- after the meeting, and would likely vote on Friday.

ElBaradei said that moves to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council were "not a crisis" but "a window of opportunity" in resolving the standoff. "We are reaching a critical phase, but it is in no way a crisis situation," he told reporters.

Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Ali-Asgh'ar Soltanieh, said that if his country is reported or referred to the council, it will begin "large scale enrichment" of uranium at its nuclear facility in Natanz.

The board Thursday began its emergency session on Iran's nuclear issue, which was requested by the EU3 after reaching an impasse in negotiations with Iran when the Islamic state announced last month it had broken IAEA seals on its nuclear facilities.

The EU3 formally submitted a draft resolution to the IAEA board on Wednesday, requesting the matter of Iran's nuclear activities be addressed by the U.N. Security Council.

To get approval from Russia and China -- both permanent members of council -- the draft resolution was amended to include the request to delay any action by the Security Council against Iran until ElBaradei's report is presented next month.

In a letter to ElBaradei, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, said there is "no legal and technical basis" to refer Iran to the Security Council. He added that Iran has increased its cooperation with the IAEA and said that the Islamic republic cannot be referred simply for engaging in nuclear research and development.

"The resumption of R&D activities after two-and-a-half years of suspension cannot provide the ground for taking harsh decisions by the board and reporting the issue to the Security Council," Larijani said in the letter dated Thursday.

"Nobody is questioning Iran's right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy," ElBaradei said. "What they are really saying is that at this stage, when there are still question marks about Iran's nuclear program, (Iran) should exercise restraint on engaging with regard to enrichment, which is a very sensitive technology that could lead to nuclear weapons."

Some of those questions were raised from documents submitted to the IAEA this week that "(pointed) directly to a military dimension, including the fabrication of nuclear weapons components and the design of missile re-entry vehicles," according to the U.S. ambassador to the agency, Greg Schulte.

Iran's ambassador has said the accusations are without merit and blamed faulty intelligence.

"We are experiencing the same bitter experience as Iraq," Soltanieh said. "We've had 20 of these allegations and one by one [they] have been proven baseless."

He noted the failure of U.S. intelligence to determine that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction prior to the U.S.-led invasion.

"We are worrying that the same mistake will be made," he said.

ElBaradei said Tehran needs to take steps to improve the world's confidence in its nuclear intents and that everyone agrees diplomacy is the only path.

The IAEA chief said "a number of critical meetings" will take place over the next month, including the consideration of a proposal under which Russia would enrich uranium for Iran.

ElBaradei called the proposal "a very attractive option for dealing with the enrichment issue, at least as a transition."

Larijani said Wednesday that Iran is considering the proposal along with several others, "But we don't see any sign of life in this plan at the time being."

"If they give us enough time to consider Russia's proposal, then there will be more opportunities," Larijani said, noting that the proposal does not rule out enrichment in Iran.

A day before the IAEA board meeting, there were some last-ditch efforts to get Iran to back off its stance.

In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw met with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, telling him not to walk away from Iran's agreement with the IAEA or to make threats, according to a British foreign office spokesman.

In Tehran, representatives from China and Russia carried the same message to Iranian officials in what European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana called "one last effort to try to reach an agreement" before Thursday's IAEA meeting.

But Iranian officials, speaking on Wednesday, showed no signs of backing off their refusal to halt nuclear activity in the wake of international pressure.

"Our nation can't give in to the coercion of some bully countries who imagine they are the whole world and see themselves equal to the entire globe," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said.

Speaking in Bushehr, the site of Iran's nuclear power plant, the Iranian leader stood by the country's commitment to its nuclear program.

"Nuclear energy is our right, and we will resist until this right is fully realized," Ahmadinejad said.

Larijani said that if the matter is taken to the U.N. Security Council, "it would be an improper and unsatisfactory measure which means a country would be punished for conducting research," Iran's state-run news agency, IRNA, reported.

CNN's Matthew Chance, Elise Labott, Richard Roth and Journalist Christian Mahne contributed to this report

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