President Bush declared Friday that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose "a grave threat to the security of the world" as he tried to rally support...

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WASHINGTON — President Bush declared Friday that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose “a grave threat to the security of the world” as he tried to rally support from other major powers for U.N. Security Council action unless a defiant Tehran abandons any aspirations for nuclear weapons.

In using the phrase “grave threat,” Bush invoked the same language he used before launching the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and he highlighted in particular the danger to Israel. But during a White House appearance with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bush stressed that he hopes to forge a “common consensus” with other world leaders for a diplomatic resolution of the escalating confrontation with Iran.

No schism, as over Iraq

The joint front presented by Bush and Merkel contrasted with the schism between the United States and major European allies during the months leading up to the Iraq war and underscored the more multilateral strategy pursued by the White House in trying to prevent Iran from building nuclear bombs. Not only do Germany, France and Britain now support taking Iran to the United Nations, but Russia has also indicated to Washington that it would permit the matter to go before the Security Council as well.

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The five permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council include the U.S., Britain, Russia and France. China, the fifth member, cautioned Friday, however, against a referral, although it did not say whether it would actually block such a move.

Just days after breaking U.N. seals on its nuclear plant in Natanz to resume uranium- enrichment research, Iran threatened to end its cooperation with U.N. nuclear inspectors if it is hauled before the Security Council.

It remains unclear what the council would be willing to do to exert pressure on Iran. U.S. and European diplomats privately said they are mapping out a series of possible steps.

Iran rejects incentives

They will meet with Russian and Chinese counterparts in London on Monday. But German and French diplomats called any talk of economic sanctions “premature.” And Britain’s foreign minister all but ruled out military action, at least for now.

The move to take the issue to the Security Council followed the collapse of more than two years of negotiations led by Germany, France and Britain. Iran insists it wants only to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes, but rejected incentives to halt programs that could be used to build weapons.

Merkel on Friday expressed the European frustration at Iran’s stance. “Iran refused every offer we made, even the Russian offer,” she said, referring to a proposal by Moscow to enrich uranium for Iran for nuclear reactors. “We will certainly not be intimidated by a country such as Iran,” Merkel said.

In discussing Iran, Bush repeated his usual formulation that it is “unacceptable” for the Islamic republic to have nuclear bombs, adding, “the reason it’s unacceptable is because Iran, armed with a nuclear weapon, poses a grave threat to the security of the world.”

The president fortified his argument by citing recent statements by Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has said that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” Bush said, “The development of a nuclear weapon, seems like to me, would make them a step closer to achieving that objective.”

Departure from script

The “grave threat” language was not in any talking points prepared and distributed Friday across the U.S. government and surprised diplomats and even some of Bush’s own aides.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan emphasized that Bush does not see Iran as another Iraq. “Iraq and Iran are not the same situations,” he said.

Unlike Iraq, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said, a military operation against Iran was not on the table. “I’ve never had a single discussion with anyone in the U.S. administration about the possibility of military action,” he told the BBC.

Iran bristled at the pressure. If it is taken to the Security Council, “the Iranian government will have to stop all its voluntary cooperation with the U.N. nuclear watchdog,” the International Atomic Energy Agency, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said, according to state-run news agency IRNA.

The Associated Press reported Friday that a private Washington institution dedicated to lessening the global threat of nuclear weapons released a satellite photograph Friday that it said shows extensive new construction at the Natanz plant.

The photo was taken Jan. 2 and depicts seven buildings under construction that have appeared in the past year, said Corey Hinderstein, deputy director of the Institute for Science and International Security.

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