In a blow to Iran, the board of the U.N. nuclear agency on Friday overwhelmingly backed a demand from the U.S., Russia, China and three other powers that Tehran immediately stop building its newly revealed nuclear facility and freeze uranium enrichment.
Iranian officials shrugged off approval of the resolution by 25 members of the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency. But the U.S. and its allies hinted of new U.N. sanctions if Tehran remains defiant.
The West said some time remained for Tehran to come around and accept a specific offer that would delay its ability to make a nuclear weapon as well as engage in broader talks with the ultimate goal of persuading it to mothball its enrichment program.
But that window of opportunity would not stay open indefinitely, officials said.
"The next stage will have to be sanctions if Iran doesn't respond to what is a very clear vote from the world community," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the resolution's passage shows that "the international community still wants dialogue with Iran, but time is pressing."
"Our hand is still held out," he added. "I hope Iran will take it. Iran must know: our patience is not infinite."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs avoided mentioning sanctions — but indicated harsher measures were possible unless Iran compromised.
'Time is running out'
"Our patience and that of the international community is limited, and time is running out," he said in a statement. "If Iran refuses to meet its obligations, then it will be responsible for its own growing isolation and the consequences."
Iran argues that its nuclear program is aimed at creating a peaceful nuclear energy network to serve its growing population. The U.S. and other nations believe Iran's nuclear program has the goal of creating atomic weapons.
The IAEA resolution criticized Iran for defying a U.N. Security Council ban on uranium enrichment — the source of both nuclear fuel and the fissile core of warheads.
It also censured Iran for secretly building a uranium enrichment facility and demanded that it immediately suspend further construction. It noted that IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei cannot confirm that Tehran's nuclear program is exclusively geared toward peaceful uses, and expressed "serious concern" that Iran's stonewalling of an IAEA probe means "the possibility of military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program" cannot be excluded.
Brown called the resolution "the strongest and most definitive statement yet made by the countries who are very worried about nuclear ambitions on the part of Iran."
The French Foreign Ministry suggested that if Iran continues to refuse to meet U.N. demands on its nuclear program the international community will follow the second track of its "double approach" — shorthand for sanctions.
Iran put on a show of defiance, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast describing the resolution as a "show ... aimed at putting pressure on Iran, which will be useless."
In Vienna, Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Tehran's chief IAEA delegate, told the meeting that "neither resolutions of the board of governors nor those of the United Nations Security Council ... neither sanctions nor the threat of military attacks can interrupt peaceful nuclear activities in Iran, even a second."
But six-power unity on the resolution and its strongly backed passage clearly was a rebuke to the Islamic Republic and its efforts to portray its nuclear program as a purely peaceful attempt to harness atomic energy.
Moscow and Beijing have acted as a traditional drag on efforts to punish Iran for its nuclear defiance, either preventing new U.N. Security Council sanctions or watering down their potency.
They did not formally endorse the last IAEA resolution in 2006, which referred Iran to the Security Council, starting the process that has resulted in three sets of sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Their backing for the document at the Vienna meeting thus reflected broad international disenchantment with Tehran.
"Six nations ... for the first time came together ... (and) have put together this resolution we all agreed on," Glyn Davies, the chief U.S. delegate to the IAEA, told reporters. "That's a significant development."
Moscow, Beijing support West
The support of Moscow and Beijing also appeared to signal their possible acceptance of any new Western push for a fourth set of U.N sanctions, should Tehran continue shunning international overtures meant to reach agreements that reduce concerns about its nuclear ambitions.
"We hope Tehran will treat the signal contained in the board resolution with all seriousness and provide full cooperation with the (IAEA)," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Strong support for the resolution at the meeting was also notable. Only three nations — Cuba, Venezuela and Malaysia — voted against the document, with six abstentions and one member absent. Even most nonaligned IAEA board members abandoned Tehran, despite their traditional backing of the Islamic Republic.
A separate resolution — a Russian initiative to establish an international nuclear fuel bank under IAEA oversight — passed with 23 nations for, eight against, three abstentions and one nation absent. The opposed votes came from developing nations that fear such a fuel bank, meant to place uranium enrichment under international control, could impinge on their right to develop indigenous nuclear programs.
In a letter to ElBaradei, Soltanieh suggested Iran could further restrict IAEA access to its nuclear activities, arguing that media leaks of confidential information posed a security threat to Iran's nuclear facilities.