VIENNA — The United Nations atomic energy agency voted Saturday to condemn Iran's nuclear activities, but the divisive vote was less than a clear victory for the U.S. administration's effort to prevent Tehran from acquiring atomic weapons.
The agency found Iran in noncompliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and required that the country be reported to the U.N. Security Council at an unspecified date.
One country, Venezuela, voted against the U.S.-backed European resolution, and 12 nations, including Russia and China, abstained. India was one of 22 supporters, but only after being pressured by the United States.
"I wouldn't say it's a triumph, but it gives Iran a signal of our determination," a European diplomat said.
Iran would be the fifth country to be referred to the Security Council for suspicions about the nature of its nuclear program. The others are North Korea, Libya, Romania and Iraq. The Security Council has the power to censure Iran and ultimately impose sanctions.
The resolution, approved by the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was the less severe of two draft measures circulated in recent days by the European Union in that it left open the timing of the Security Council referral.
The EU and United States proposed the softer resolution with the goal of gaining a consensus on the board, but they did not succeed. Votes are rare on the board, which prefers to approve resolutions by consensus. The last vote occurred in 2003 when North Korea was reported to the Security Council. However, that was a far less divisive issue, with just two countries abstaining.
Saturday's action produced a mixed outcome both for Iran and for the European Union and United States. The U.S. had lobbied hard for more than two years for the Security Council referral, and its first choice had been to send Iran to the council immediately.
Nonetheless, the resolution approved Saturday was far stronger than any previous IAEA resolution on Iran.
"This is a significant step forward in the international effort to isolate Iran and a setback for Iran's nuclear strategy," R. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. undersecretary of State for political affairs, said in a conference call with reporters.
Gregory Schulte, the U.S. ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, said the majority support showed that "Iran's activities, its pattern of deception and its confrontational approach are of great concern to the world community."
However, the toughest battle -- actually referring Iran to the Security Council -- was left for another board meeting. Many countries, including some that voted in favor, said they did not want to take this step, said diplomats who attended the meeting.
Russia, whose vote was crucial because many other countries usually follow its lead, had strongly opposed an immediate referral because it could antagonize Iran. The Russian ambassador told the board that the reason Russia decided to abstain rather than vote "no" was because the resolution did not send Iran to the Security Council. China made a similar comment, saying it was in favor of negotiation, not referral.
Reporting a country to the Security Council, where it can be subject to punitive measures, singles it out as a bad actor in the international community and publicly embarrasses it. Iran has sought for 2 1/2 years to avoid a referral because it wants to be seen as a country in good standing.
The Security Council also has the power to enact economic sanctions, but in Iran's case, these are unlikely; with oil prices hovering at $70 a barrel, many countries are dependent on an uninterrupted supply of Iranian oil.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the IAEA, expressed disappointment at the division on the board. "I was deeply disturbed by the lack of any mention of arms control and disarmament at the [U.N.] summit in New York last week. And today I see also a divided board. That is not the way I should hope we would continue to proceed," he said.
Iran underscored that point when a member of its delegation, Javad Vaeidi, said after the vote: "There is no consensus on the way to go forward.... The United States and the United Kingdom left no screws unturned to forge consensus here. They failed."
In his statement to the IAEA board after the vote, Iranian Ambassador Mohammed Mehdi Akhondzadeh took a restrained tone, refuting the resolution's claims and refraining from threats to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or reduce U.N. inspectors' access to the country. That was a departure from the country's tone over the last couple of weeks, when Iranian diplomats in New York and Tehran suggested that referring Iran to the Security Council would prompt it to take drastic steps.
Akhondzadeh made an oblique reference to the possibility that the country would cease voluntary confidence-building measures, a signal that it could restart a pilot plant where it is testing uranium enrichment equipment.