WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States warned Iran on Tuesday against resuming atomic fuel research and development next week in what could become a showdown over the West's suspicions that Tehran wants to build a nuclear bomb.
The United States suspects research and development work that Iran said would resume on Jan. 9 could help what Washington believes is Tehran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
"If Iran takes any further enrichment-related steps, the international community will have to consider additional measures to restrain Iran's nuclear ambitions," he said, without specifying what action the United States wanted.
Tehran denies seeking nuclear weapons and says its atomic programs are for peaceful power generation.
Patrick Clawson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said European powers have in the past made it clear they would not tolerate Iran restarting nuclear research.
And the United States would use any resumption to rally other powers, such as Russia, to adopt its harder line against Iran, he said.
"The resumption will be a real Rubicon for the Iranians to cross," he said. "It has been expected for months that this could be a real galvanizing moment for the international community (against Iran)."
SECURITY COUNCIL THREAT
The United States has made curbing Iran's nuclear programs a top foreign policy goal. For months, it has been pressing for Iran to be referred to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions because it says Iran has failed to dispel suspicions it is building a nuclear bomb.
International resistance to such a referral has gradually been eroding as Iran has taken an increasingly hard line insisting on its right to develop peaceful nuclear programs.
Earlier on Tuesday, Iran said it would resume nuclear research and development, which it suspended as part of an agreement with Britain, France and Germany two years ago to defuse international pressure over its atomic ambitions.
Such work may include the manufacture and assembly of centrifuges used for uranium enrichment, the most sensitive part of the nuclear fuel cycle. It could also include some small-scale enrichment tests.
Diplomats said Tuesday's announcement, which followed Iran's resumption of uranium conversion in August, was a serious blow to diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute.
McCormack said: "In terms of trying to draw a line around something being pure research with respect to enrichment activities, (that) is not something that we're going to buy, and I don't think the international community will either."
European powers have been leading negotiations to curb Iran's programs in return for economic incentives.
The diplomatic focus in recent weeks has been on a compromise proposal in which Iran would enrich uranium in Russia. That would allow Iran to develop programs for power generation but allay Western fears that the Islamic Republic could get its hands on bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium.
With Iran's Foreign Ministry strongly hinting Tehran would reject the proposal, the United States also complained on Tuesday that Iran was using stalling tactics.
"The Iranians have really done, sort of, a bob-and-weave on this issue," McCormack said.
"They have been seeking to extend out discussions, not really commit to whether or not they are going to negotiate in a serious manner. And, frankly, the patience of the international community is not infinite on this issue because it's a serious issue."