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Europeans warn Iran on nuclear activity

WASHINGTON — European officials notified Iran for the first time Wednesday that they will walk away from two years of talks and sign on to a Bush administration strategy for punitive measures against Tehran if it makes good on threats to resume nuclear work in coming days.

In a sharply worded letter to Hassan Rouhani, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany warned that such work “would bring the negotiating process to an end.” The letter added: “The consequences could only be negative for Iran.”

The letter was an attempt to avert an escalation in the crisis over a program Iran says it developed in secret to produce nuclear energy, not atomic weapons. It appeared to have an immediate effect.

After weeks of threats, Iranian officials said they decided to hold off for now on a plan to notify the International Atomic Energy Agency today of their intent to restart a uranium-conversion facility in the town of Isfahan. Instead, an Iranian diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity said his government was exploring an offer contained in the letter for a four-way meeting sometime in the next two weeks to discuss the latest flare-up.

The willingness of the European trio to take Iran to task if it ends a suspension of its nuclear program after six months indicated that the Bush administration is having some success in persuading key allies to take a tougher approach with the Islamic republic.

The European shift was prompted in part by frustration with Iran but also by a change in tactics by the White House. After two years of refusing to back Europe’s diplomatic track with Iran, the administration decided in March to support the process in exchange for written guarantees that if talks fell apart, Europe would agree to take the issue to the U.N. Security Council.

“This is the closest we’ve gotten to reporting Iran to the council since November 2003,” said one U.S. official. If Iran informs the IAEA that it plans to resume work at any nuclear facility, “it will set off a series of outcomes and escalations towards the Security Council that will be hard to stop,” said the official.