The U.S. and its Western allies bluntly accused Iran on Friday of deceiving the world by trying to hide work on nuclear arms, as the U.N. atomic agency passed a new resolution criticizing Tehran's nuclear defiance.
Iran shot back that the West's allegations were based on fabricated American, Israeli, British and French intelligence fed to the International Atomic Energy Agency to try and discredit the Islamic Republic.
Reflecting its bitterness, Iran's chief IAEA delegate withdrew an invitation to U.N. atomic agency experts to visit Tehran and discuss nuclear concerns.
He also announced Tehran was boycotting a meeting next week to explore the possibilities of a Mideast nuclear-free zone that will be attended by Israel and all Arab nations, accusing IAEA chief Yukiya Amano of bias for not focusing on Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal.
The unusually tough exchanges were bound to further raise international tensions over Iran's nuclear activities _ even though the Western statements emphasized that the preferred solution was through diplomacy.
France warned Iran to defuse world fears that it is working on nuclear weapons or face "unprecedented" sanctions, while Washington dismissed "the hollowness" of Iranian claims, asserting that Iran must acknowledge its secret weapons development work. Britain, too, urged Iran to "address the grave concerns of the international community about its nuclear program."
Statements delivered to the IAEA's 35-nation board by the U.S., and on behalf of Germany, Britain and France, contained no mention of military action _ an option that has not been discounted by either Israel or the U.S. if Tehran refuses to stop activities that can be used for nuclear weapons.
Still, they pulled no punches, drawing heavily on a recent IAEA report based on intelligence from more than 10 nations that concluded that some alleged clandestine work by Iran could not be used for any other purpose than making nuclear arms.
"It is no longer within the bounds of credulity to claim that Iran's nuclear activities are solely peaceful," said Glyn Davies, the chief U.S. delegate to the IAEA, adding: "There is little doubt that Iran ... at the very least, wants to position itself for a nuclear weapons capability."
He told The Associated Press that the Iranian allegations were nothing more than "old bile in new bottles" _ old excuses repackaged for the IAEA meeting.
For the three European nations, German chief delegate Ruediger Luedeking said Iranian actions, ..."deepened disbelief in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program."
Delegates at the closed meeting easily passed a resolution based on the report urging Iran to end more than three years of stonewalling of IAEA attempts to probe the allegations, and to heed U.N. Security Council demands to stop other activities that could be used to make nuclear arms. Only Cuba and Ecuador voted against, and Indonesia abstained.
The resolution is milder than the West had hoped for _ but it had the support of Russia and China, which Iran traditionally counts on to counter Western pressure.
A senior diplomat at the meeting told The AP that Tehran was particularly unhappy with the success of the West's tactical move _ watering down the language of the resolution in exchange for support from Moscow and Beijing. He asked for anonymity for relaying confidential information.
The text expressed "serious concern that Iran continues to defy the requirements and obligations contained in the relevant IAEA Board of Governors and U.N. Security Council Resolutions." It also spoke of "deep and increasing concern about the unresolved issues regarding the Iranian nuclear program, including those which need to be clarified to exclude the existence of possible military dimensions."
"Serious concern" and "deep and increasing concern" are strong terms in the diplomatic world.
The resolution did not threaten new U.N. sanctions _ Iran already is under four such sets of penalties. But French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe warned of new punitive measures if Tehran remains defiant.
"France urges Iran to heed the unanimous message addressed to her by the IAEA," he said in a statement. "If Iran refuses to comply with her international obligations ... we shall, along with all our partners, adopt sanctions on an unprecedented scale."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the IAEA report revealed that Iran "engaged in covert research and development related to activities that can have only one application: building a nuclear warhead for delivery on a ballistic missile.
"The Director General's report and today's action by the Board of Governors expose once and for all the hollowness of Iran's claims, and reinforce the world's demands that Iran come clean," he said in a statement.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said Moscow shares "a growing concern about the current developments expressed in the resolution" but warned of "an outburst of political passions" that would hamper dialogue between Iran and world powers.
Pressure on Iran began Monday. In opening words to the meeting, Amano voiced concerns "regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program," saying such work may extend into the present. He added his agency finds the information leading to such suspicions to be generally credible.
Iran is under U.N. Security Council resolutions for refusing to freeze uranium enrichment _ which can make both nuclear fuel and fissile weapons material.
It denies any interest in such weapons, says it is being targeted unfairly by the U.S. and its allies and that Amano is working for the Americans.
Chief Iranian delegate Ali Ashghar Soltanieh accused Amano of drawing up an "illegal, partial and unjustified and politicized report."
The report, he said, is based on "information provided by intelligence services of (the) U.S., U.K, France, (the) Israeli regime and some other western countries, which are false, baseless and fabricated."
He also accused Amano of security leaks that expose his country's scientists and their families to the threat of assassination by the U.S. and Israel.
Such leaks, said Soltanieh, have made Iranian scientists "the targets for assassination by ... (the) Israeli regime and United State(s) of America intelligence services." He said Amano is to blame for any threat "against the lives of my fellow citizens."
Bradley Klapper in Washington, Danica Kirka in London, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, and Noura Maan in Vienna contributed to this report.
George Jahn can be reached at: http://twitter.com/georgejahn