VIENNA (Reuters) - The 35-nation board of the U.N. nuclear watchdog looked set on Friday to censure Iran over mounting suspicions it is seeking to develop atom bombs, after the six big powers overcame divisions on how to best deal with a defiant Tehran.
But a draft resolution expected to win support from most countries at the meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) did not include any concrete punitive steps, reflecting Russian and Chinese opposition for such measures.
Iran showed no sign of backing down in the protracted dispute over its atomic activities, threatening to take legal action against the Vienna-based U.N. agency for issuing a hard-hitting report about Tehran's nuclear programme.
Last week's IAEA report presented a stash of intelligence indicating that Iran has undertaken research and experiments geared to developing a nuclear weapons capability. It has stoked tensions in the Middle East and redoubled calls in Western capitals for stiffer sanctions against Tehran.
Iran says it is enriching uranium only as fuel for nuclear power plants, not atomic weapons. It has dismissed the details in the IAEA report obtained mainly from Western spy agencies as fabricated, and accusing the IAEA of a pro-Western slant.
Iran's ambassador to the Vienna-based IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, accused the agency of leaking the report early to the United States, Britain and France. Some of its contents appeared in Western media before their release on November 8.
"This is a clear violation of the (IAEA) staff regulation, the oath taken by the Director General upon his assumption of the post, as well as the spirit and letter of the Statute of the IAEA since all member states have to be treated equally," he said in a letter to IAEA chief Yukiya Amano.
"My government reserves its legitimate rights ... to seek damages, monetary and otherwise, from the IAEA for any injury to persons and damages to property in my country that may arise from your unjustified, unfair and politically motivated reports and decisions that may be taken on the basis of such reports."
He appeared to be hinting at speculation that Israel, which sees Iran's nuclear programme as an existential threat, might launch pre-emptive attacks on Iranian atomic sites in the absence of diplomatic negotiations to resolve the dispute.
Soltanieh's letter, dated November 16, was distributed to media in Vienna on Friday, shortly before the governing board of the IAEA was due to start a debate on a draft resolution on Iran.
POWERS VOICE "INCREASING CONCERN"
The six powers spearheading diplomacy on Iran -- the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany -- this week ironed out a joint resolution in intense talks and submitted it to the board, a mix of industrialised and developing countries.
The fact that it was backed by all the big powers virtually guaranteed it would win wide support in a vote expected later on Friday. Diplomats said the resolution had won many additional sponsors, bringing the total to a clear majority.
But it will not placate those in the West and in Israel, Iran's arch-foe, who had hoped Amano's report would bring about concrete international action to corral Tehran, such as an IAEA referral of its case to the U.N. Security Council.
"At this point, it doesn't really ratchet up the pressure on Iran," said proliferation expert Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noting the text did not set any deadlines for Iran to resolve outstanding issues.
With several rounds of nuclear talks having led nowhere, failing even to agree an agenda, the Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions on Iran since 2006. But Moscow and Beijing, with hefty trade and energy stakes in Iran, have made clear their opposition to further such steps.
Diplomats cast the powers' resolution text as a compromise between Western states, which would have preferred sharper language, and Russia and China, which resisted out of concern not to lose trade or burn all bridges for talks with Tehran.
Russia has criticised the IAEA for publishing its report on Iran last week. In contrast, Western states seized on it to press for additional sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
The text expressed "deep and increasing concern about the unresolved issues regarding the Iranian nuclear programme, including those which need to be clarified to exclude the existence of possible military dimensions".
The draft resolution called on Tehran to open up fully to U.N. inspectors and "engage seriously and without preconditions in talks" to address nuclear concerns. It asked Amano to report back to the board's next meeting in March.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)