UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council made its first move Wednesday to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions, warning it to suspend its uranium enrichment activities and to cooperate with the U.N.'s nuclear agency.
The council called for the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, to report within 30 days on Iran's compliance, after which it would consider the matter again.
The statement, which was approved by all 15 Security Council members, is not legally binding and makes no reference to potential consequences if Iran fails to meet its terms. But U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton called it "the first major step in the Security Council to deal with Iran's nearly 20-year-old clandestine nuclear weapons program."
"It sends an unmistakable message to Iran that its efforts to deny the obvious fact of what it is doing are not going to be sufficient," Bolton said.
The IAEA's board sent the case to the Security Council after Iran restarted its nuclear enrichment program early this year, and agency experts say Tehran is poised to start operating a centrifuge cascade to enrich uranium that could be a technological milestone for producing weapons-grade fuel.
Iran contends that all its activities are legal and that it wants to develop technology to produce nuclear energy, not arms.
"Iran does not want nuclear weapons, nor does it want to pursue the development, stockpiling or production of nuclear weapons," Iranian Ambassador Javad Zarif said Wednesday.
"Iran will want to cooperate with the international community," he said. "But it does not accept pressure and intimidation."
The Security Council statement came a day before a key meeting of foreign ministers from the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany aimed at laying out a unified long-term strategy for dealing with Iran.
The British and French ambassadors described a gradual, incremental and reversible approach that would allow Tehran room to gracefully suspend its nuclear research program, while making clear that it would face more serious measures if it did not.
But the Security Council's wrangling over the first step foreshadows tougher fights ahead on what such measures might be. A leaked confidential letter from British Foreign Office political director John Sawers to his U.S. and European counterparts before a meeting this month acknowledged that "we are not going to bring the Russians and Chinese to accept significant sanctions over the coming months, certainly not without further efforts to bring the Iranians around."
The council's 15 members agreed after three weeks of difficult talks that Iran should not be allowed to gain the ability to make a nuclear weapon. But Russia and China have insisted that there is not yet evidence to show that Iran poses a threat to international peace and security, which would open the door to international sanctions or military action, measures both countries oppose.
Russian Ambassador Andrey Denisov said Moscow would not block tough action if there were a solid case, but to brand it a threat now would cause Tehran to stop cooperating.
"Our job is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon," Denisov said. "But if there is clear evidence that Iran is proliferating, the Security Council must use all the weapons, all the instruments it has. That is our message to Iran too."
Chinese Ambassador Wang Guangya said the council agreed to send a "strong message to support diplomatic efforts leading to a solution and to support the IAEA. For this point we support the statement."
But Wang signaled that unresolved differences over potential sanctions may arise again next month, saying that the Security Council's permanent members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- may have "different interpretations."