VIENNA -- Iran said yesterday that it has frozen all uranium enrichment programs, an assertion welcomed by Europe even as it weakened a US push to refer Tehran's suspect nuclear activities to the UN Security Council. President Bush said he hoped the statement is true, but ''there must be verification."
Even if verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency, such a freeze falls short of European and US hopes of an Iranian commitment to scrap enrichment ambitions.
Iran has said suspension will be only temporary and insists that it has the ultimate right to enrich uranium. It dismisses US assertions that it wants to use the technology to make weapons, saying it is interested only in generating nuclear power.
Iran agreed earlier this month to suspend its uranium enrichment program in return for economic incentives from Britain, France and Germany. Yesterday was the deadline it set to halt production. Tehran's announcement of a start to suspension came only after it had already converted a few tons of raw uranium into the gas used as feedstock for enrichment. Conversion continued until shortly before the deadline, raising doubts about Iran's interest in dispelling international concerns.
''Iran suspended uranium enrichment [and related activities] as of today," Iranian state radio said yesterday.
In Vienna, home to the IAEA, agency head Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters: ''I think pretty much everything has come to a halt."
Bush said Iran must ''earn the trust of those of us who are worried about them developing a nuclear weapon."
''Let's say I hope it's true," Bush said at a news conference in Cartegena, Colombia. But, he added, ''I think the definition of truth is the willingness of the Iranian regime to allow for verification."
ElBaradei said he expected to have a definitive ruling by Thursday on whether Iran had honored its pledge to stop all activities covered by the freeze, among them producing the uranium hexafluoride gas that can be enriched either to low-grade nuclear fuel or high-level weapons grade uranium used for the core of warheads.
Britain, a key negotiator of the Nov. 7 deal that promises Iran technical and political support from the European Union in exchange for the suspension, cautiously welcomed the move while making clear it would watch closely for its implementation.
''Clearly the important thing is that on the one hand Iran is showing signs of compliance," said the office of Prime Minister Tony Blair. ''But equally the important thing is that it does so."
Still, the suspension -- if verified by IAEA inspectors -- will take the wind out of a US push to have Iran referred to the Security Council, a goal the Americans have pursued since the start more than a year ago of an agency probe into suspect Iranian dual-use nuclear activities.
The suspension was clearly timed to the start Thursday of a 35-nation IAEA board meeting and met a key demand of the last board meeting in September. It thus deprived the Americans of arguing that Tehran was defying the UN agency.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw warned that if Iran reneges on the deal, the European Union ''reserves the right" to seek UN sanctions against the country.
Still, that option seemed far away yesterday, judging from an EU draft resolution on Iran to be presented to the board.
The confidential draft -- as excerpted to The Associated Press by a senior EU diplomat -- did not go beyond requesting that ElBaradei monitor the implementation of the suspension and ''report immediately to the board" if the freeze is not implemented.
The draft would probably undergo modifications, he said. The Americans in particular would be looking to toughen up the language, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Another senior EU diplomat, however, said the Europeans had little wiggle room because language that is too direct could alienate the Iranians and lead them to resume enrichment.
Analysts said the Americans would have to settle for less than referral.
''This will virtually undermine US efforts to move the Iran nuclear file from the IAEA board to the Security Council," said Shannon Kile, who follows nuclear issues for Sweden's Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
While not prohibited from enrichment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran has been under intense pressure to agree to at least a freeze as a way of reducing international suspicions.
ElBaradei said yesterday that he believed the Iranians processed about two tons of raw uranium into the gas in the period leading up to the suspension deadline.