WASHINGTON -- The United States declared yesterday that the UN Security Council should take ''strong steps" against Iran, following Iran's assertion Tuesday that it had enriched uranium in defiance of an international call to suspend such work.
European powers as well as Russia and China joined the United States in criticizing Iran's announcement that it had succeeded in enriching uranium to a level suitable for civilian power reactors. The same process, on a much larger scale, can produce fuel for nuclear weapons.
But Russia and China -- veto-wielding members of the Security Council with huge financial stakes in oil-rich Iran -- have not backed a US push for sanctions.
Some analysts said the Bush administration should consider a new strategy that recognized Iran as a regional power, embraced direct talks on the nuclear crisis and other issues, and dropped the threat of force.
Iranian leaders yesterday reaffirmed their plan to build an industrial-scale enrichment facility with thousands of centrifuges that spin uranium hexafluoride gas into low-enriched uranium for power plants and also can produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
''The Iranian nation will not retreat from gaining peaceful nuclear technology," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said.
He spoke hours before Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency, arrived in Tehran for talks. ElBaradei is to deliver a report to the Security Council by April 28 on whether Iran is heeding the council's demand to suspend all enrichment work.
The council, in a statement March 28, also called on Iran to answer outstanding questions, including some about purchases of weapons-related materials from a smuggling ring led by Pakistan's A.Q. Khan.
Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes, but its admission of hiding the effort for 18 years and its refusals to disclose details have fueled US and European charges that it is secretly developing a nuclear arsenal.
The Security Council statement underscored that ''the world does not believe that Iran should have the capability and the technology that could lead to a nuclear weapon," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday.
''It is time for action," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. He said the United States was consulting with allies.
Britain and Germany criticized Iran's purported enrichment success as flouting the Security Council, and similar criticism came from Russia and China. But Russia gave no sign that it would drop its opposition to sanctions, and China's UN ambassador, Wang Guangya, said any discussion of sanctions or the use of force ''will not be helpful under the current circumstances."