UNITED NATIONS -- President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran canceled a trip to New York to address the UN Security Council before it votes on whether to impose further sanctions over its nuclear program, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said yesterday.
The decision came as diplomats from the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia -- and Germany held a flurry of last-minute negotiations in New York on a draft resolution seeking to pressure Iran to comply with an order to halt uranium enrichment.
The six powers want a vote on the resolution by today, but diplomats said that could be delayed by efforts to reach consensus to give the sanctions more weight.
The sanctions, agreed on last week by the six powers, would ban Iranian arms exports and freeze the assets of 28 additional individuals and organizations involved in Iran's nuclear and missile programs. About a third of those are linked to the Revolutionary Guard, an elite military corps.
Ahmadinejad said earlier this month that he wanted to take his case for pursuing nuclear power to the Security Council himself. Earlier yesterday, a council diplomat said the Iranian president would arrive in New York at 1 a.m. today, just hours before the council is expected to meet.
But Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini told Iranian state television later in the day that the trip had been scrapped because of "America's obstruction in issuing visas" to the Iranian delegation.
Hosseini said that instead of Ahmadinejad, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki will attend the Security Council meeting and "explain Iran's position regarding its nuclear activities."
"Due to open failure by the United States to issue visas for members of the Iranian delegation accompanying President Ahmadinejad and the air crew, American authorities have effectively prevented President Ahmadinejad from attending the UN Security Council meeting," Hosseini said.
Mohammad Mir Ali Mohammadi, press secretary of Iran's mission at the UN, said the United States did not deliver a visa to the US Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, in time for Ahmadinejad to pick it up before flying to New York for today's session.
He said Russia and China were trying to postpone the session until Monday and if the session were put off Ahmadinejad would decide whether to come.
Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, said in Washington that 39 visas had been issued for Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials and their passports were returned to Iranian diplomats in Bern by yesterday morning. He said another 36 passports with visas were ready later in the day.
The United States says Iran's nuclear efforts are cover for a weapons program, but Tehran maintains it only wants electricity.
In December, the Security Council voted unanimously to impose limited sanctions on Iran, ordering all countries to stop supplying Iran with materials and technology that could contribute to its nuclear and missile programs and to freeze assets of 10 key Iranian companies and 12 individuals with ties to those programs. Iran responded by expanding its enrichment program.
Several nonpermanent members of the Security Council have resisted the draft resolution, agreed upon last week by the five council powers and Germany.
In an effort to overcome their concerns, Russia proposed a compromise yesterday over a proposal by Indonesia and Qatar calling for the Middle East to be free of weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them.
The Russian proposal would include recognition that "a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue would contribute global non-proliferation efforts, including those in the Middle East."
France and Britain approved of the wording, while the United States was considering it, said Axel Crau, a spokesman for France's UN mission.
Alejandro Wolff, acting US ambassador to the United Nations, said the nuclear debate should not be affected by the Iranian seizure of 15 British sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf yesterday.