WASHINGTON – The world’s nuclear watchdog voted for the first time Saturday in favor of referring Iran’s nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council, in what amounts to a tentative victory for the Bush administration’s efforts to isolate Tehran.

The vote by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s governing board fell short of the immediate action sought by the United States. Iran was given until at least November to clear up questions about its nuclear activities before it faces referral to the Security Council, which could impose economic sanctions.

Still, the 22-1 vote, with 12 abstentions, appeared to reflect growing international concern that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian power program.

“This is a significant step forward in the international effort to isolate Iran. It’s also a setback for Iran’s nuclear strategy,” U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told reporters in a conference call.

Iran denies that it’s seeking nuclear weapons. Iran’s chief delegate to the session of the Vienna-based IAEA, Javad Vaidi, said the vote was a failure for Western powers because it did not immediately send the issue to the Security Council.

The resolution, proposed by the European Union, “belongs to the West and this vote should be considered a Western vote,” Vaidi said, suggesting non-Western countries backed Iran’s position.

Iran has threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty if its case is sent to the Security Council; Tehran appeared Saturday to be assessing its next step.

Several key powers that differ with the U.S. strategy of confrontation with Iran, including Russia and China, abstained from voting. Venezuela voted against it.

But India, which has good relations with Tehran and often sides with it on issues affecting developing nations, backed the resolution.

Several U.S. Congress members warned India recently that its failure to help in pressuring Iran would jeopardize a new civilian nuclear technology partnership backed by President Bush.

The IAEA board resolution criticizes Iran for failing to answer questions that would assure the international community that its nuclear activities are for nonmilitary purposes and to cease activities related to the enrichment of uranium.

Iran last month resumed the conversion of uranium ore into a gas, uranium hexafluoride, that can then be enriched to form fuel for nuclear weapons.

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