BERLIN - European foreign ministers said today that nuclear talks with Iran had reached a dead end after more than two years of acrimonious negotiations and the issue should be referred to the U.N. Security Council.
The top diplomats from France, Germany and Britain, however, held back from calling for the 15-nation council to impose sanctions and said they remained open to more talks.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also said a "strong message" had to be sent to Tehran but said she was not ready to talk about what action should be taken to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Tehran was interested in resuming "serious and constructive negotiations" with the Europeans but this time wanted a deadline.
Larijani told CNN that Iran wants to reach agreement with Europe and Russia "with the objective of allaying their concerns regarding diverting nuclear material."
"We recommend negotiations continue" without preconditions, he said, but "the question of our research is non-negotiable."
Senior Iranian negotiator Java Avid, meanwhile, said the Europeans should step back from referring his country to the Security Council, warning it would not change Iran's behavior but would lead to a tough response.
The statements came two days after Iran broke U.N. seals at a uranium enrichment plant and said it was resuming nuclear research after a two-year freeze. Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, while the U.S. and others say it is aimed at producing weapons.
Negotiations aimed at getting Iran to permanently abandon uranium enrichment had reached "an impasse," the Europeans said, citing what they called a "documented record of concealment and deception." Enriched uranium can be used for fuel or, at high levels of enrichment, weapons.
In a joint statement, they charged that Iran seemed "intent on turning its back on better relations with the international community."
The ministers called for a special session of the International Atomic Energy Agency to decide on referral to the Security Council, which could impose sanctions.
"From our point of view, the time has come for the U.N. Security Council to become involved," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after meeting with his French and British counterparts and the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana.
Steinmeier said the three countries would inform the IAEA board "that our talks with Iran have reached a dead end." He stressed the Europeans remain ready to solve the problem "diplomatically, multilaterally and by peaceful means."
Europeans stressed it was too early to discuss sanctions. Diplomats from France and Germany indicated time was needed to get the international community to agree on what measures should be considered for dealing with Iran. One possibility was seen as seeking sharper language from the U.N. nuclear watchdog in Vienna, Austria.
Nuclear proliferation expert Francois Gere, who heads the French Institute of Strategic Analysis, said few options existed for punishing Iran and the Iranians know it. The French, he said, were still looking at diplomatic solutions short of sanctions. "There is absolutely no discussion of punishment for the moment in the French approach," he said.
Key to efforts to take action against Iran are Russia and China, traditional allies with Tehran who hold veto power in the Security Council and could thwart efforts to punish the Islamic republic.
Moscow and Beijing have previously opposed taking the issue to the Security Council but have shown increasing impatience with Tehran during the latest standoff.
Russian experts are helping build a nuclear reactor at Bushehr in Iran, and China is a major customer for Iranian oil and gas. And sanctions that restrict Iran's ability to sell oil could raise already high oil prices, hurting Western economies.
An Iranian official said the issue could still be resolved through diplomacy.
Supreme National Security Council spokesman, Hossein Entezami, said in a statement broadcast on state television that Iran's program remained within the IAEA framework and urged the Europeans not to challenge the Iranian people's demand for nuclear energy or to stall diplomatic channels by what he called "their unwise decisions."
Avid issued a stronger warning against referral later today.
"It forces Iran to feel it is in an emergency and it contributes to hard-line policies," Avid said.
Rice declined to spell out what moves the Security Council could take even as she called on it to deal with Iran's "defiance."
"It is very clear that everyone believes a very important threshold has been cleared," Rice said.
The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, said during an appearance before the Aspen Institute in Berlin that Iran should follow the example of Libya, which gave up its nuclear program under international pressure.
"Iran holds the key in its own hands as to what is going to happen," Bolton said. "By taking the matter to the Security Council, I think we change the political dynamic and increase the pressure on Iran.
He declined to comment on the possibility of sanctions.
The Security Council is most likely to ratchet up the pressure gradually, starting with a condemnation of the country and demanding that Iran comply with IAEA decisions.
Russia, the United States, the European Union and China are to discuss the issue further in London next week.