Tehran, Iran — Iran threatened Friday to end surprise inspections and other cooperation with the U.N. nuclear watchdog if it is referred to the U.N. Security Council over its nuclear program, and the president vowed his country won't be intimidated by sanctions.
Iran's tough line came as Europe and the United States were trying to build support for hauling Iran before the Security Council. They faced resistance from China, which warned the move could only escalate the confrontation.
In Washington, President Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged U.N. intervention. The world needs to "send a common message to Iran that their behavior ... is unacceptable," Bush said.
An end to U.N. inspections would be a dramatic breakdown in the already faltering diplomatic attempts at reining in Iran's nuclear ambitions. The United States and many in Europe fear Iran aims to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran insists its program is peaceful, intended only to produce electricity. But it has insisted on its right to conduct uranium enrichment, a process that can produce reactor fuel or material for a nuclear bomb.
After Iran resumed research work on enrichment this week, Britain, France and Germany issued a tough statement Thursday declaring 2 1/2 years of tense negotiations with Tehran at a "dead end" and urging the Security Council to intervene.
But on Friday, the three countries carefully avoided talk of sanctions, with diplomats privately conceding there was little appetite for tough economic sanctions, such as restricting oil and gas sales - given the impact that would have on the world economy.
Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the Security Council would consider sanctions if Tehran remained defiant. But echoing French and German officials, who said talk of sanctions was "premature," he called for patient, step by step diplomacy.
"Our approach is firm, but it has also got to be a sensible, patient approach which ensures that there is a continuation of the very substantial international consensus which we have built up," he said.
In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said a referral to the U.N. would prompt Iran to end its cooperation with the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency outlined in an agreement known as the Additional Protocols, reached in October 2003.
"In case Iran is referred to the U.N. Security Council ... the government will be obliged to end all of its voluntary cooperation," the television quoted Mottaki as saying.
Under the protocols, Iran agreed to allow IAEA inspectors to carry out surprise inspections of its nuclear sites with as little as two hours notice. The deal also lets them inspect sites Iran has not officially declared as nuclear facilities - such as the Parchin military base outside of Tehran that inspectors visited in October, suspecting that nuclear activity was taking place there.
Iran's parliament passed a law late last year requiring the government to block intrusive inspections of Iran's facilities if the U.N. nuclear agency refers the Iranian program to the Security Council.
The law also requires the Iranian government to resume all nuclear activities it had stopped voluntarily, foremost among them enriching uranium. Western countries, and chiefly the U.S., fear enrichment could be used to also produce material for nuclear weapons.
Mottaki did not specifically mention whether Iran would resume enrichment if it were put before the council.
Top Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani called the head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, on Friday and stressed Iran's desire to resolve the dispute diplomatically, Iranian state TV reported.
The newscaster said Larijani reiterated to ElBaradei that Iran is determined to realize its nuclear goals "in the framework of international regulations and under the supervision of the IAEA."
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran would not bend before the threat of sanctions.
"Iran is not frightened by threats from any country and it will continue the path of production of the nuclear energy," state-run radio quoted him as saying. "Iranian people do not allow foreigners to block their progress."
Hamidreza Hajbabai, a member of parliament's national security and foreign policy committee, predicted the West would back down from referring Iran to the council.
"Europe does not seek a chaotic situation that does not serve anybody," he told state-run radio.
"Iran is not a country that the West could easily force it to give in nuclear fuel by sanctions and political pressures. These will only make Iranian people united more than before," the radio said in a commentary.
China, which has growing economic ties with Iran and holds veto powers at the Security Council, expressed its opposition to putting Tehran before the world body for possible sanctions.
"We want a solution but to refer it might complicate the issue," its U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, said. "This is our concern."
Asked how a referral to the council could complicate the situation, Wang said, "I think that this might make the positions of some parties more tough on this issue."
Europe has been trying to get Iran to permanently abandon uranium enrichment but Iran says it won't give up its right under the NPT to enrich uranium and produce nuclear fuel.
On Tuesday, Iran removed some U.N. seals from its main uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, central Iran, and resumed research on nuclear fuel - including some small-scale enrichment.
In Friday's comments, Mottaki called on Europe to "not make propaganda over research which is natural and normal" and that it was prepared for talks with Europeans over the enrichment process.
Iran also described an earlier proposal to enrich uranium on Russian territory and ship it back to Iran to fuel nuclear power as a good starting point for negotiations.