China and Russia, longtime allies and trading partners of Iran, signed on to a statement that calls on the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to transfer the Iran dossier to the Security Council, which could impose sanctions or take other harsh action.
The IAEA meets in Vienna on Thursday.
Though the United States, Britain and France have been pressing to hand Iran's case to the Security Council, it had been unclear until now whether China and Russia would support such a move.
"The breakthrough agreement by all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council sends a united message to Iran that the world will not tolerate nuclear weapons development," said CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst Pamela Falk, interviewed on CBS News Up To The Minute, "but the agreement was achieved by the decision to take no action until the final International Atomic Energy Agency report in March, giving Iran a face-saving way to get back on track with its commitment to close down its facilities."
Reacting to the U.N. Security Council's announcement, Iran's Vice President said early Tuesday that the decision to send Iran's case to the United Nations Security Council has no legal justification.
Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who is also the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said it is still difficult to predict how the International Atomic Energy Agency's meeting on Thursday will develop, the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency reported.
"The biggest problem for the West is that they can't find any (legal) justification to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Counil," ISNA quoted him as saying.
Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her counterparts discussed Iran at a private dinner at the home of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. After the four-hour meeting, which spilled over into the early hours Tuesday, a joint statement called on the IAEA to report on Iran at a meeting on Thursday.
With support from Germany and the European Union, whose foreign ministers also attended the dinner, the overall agreement amounted to a compromise - take the case to the Security Council but allow a short breather before the council undertakes what could be a divisive debate.
Any of the five permanent members of the Security Council, all nuclear powers themselves, can veto an action voted by the full council membership.
The group agreed that the IAEA "should report to the Security Council its decision on the steps required of Iran, and should also report to the Security Council all IAEA reports and resolutions as adopted relating to this issue," a statement from the group said.
The IAEA has already found Iran in violation of nuclear obligations and issued a stern warning to Tehran in September. Thursday's vote would be the next step, one long sought by the United States.
Iran insists its nuclear program is intended only to produce electricity. The United States and some allies say Iran is hiding ambitions to build a nuclear bomb, but the Security Council members have been divided about how strong a line to take.
It is still not clear how Russia and China would vote if the questions of sanctions came before the Security Council. It is also not clear that the United States will win the broad international consensus it seeks when the IAEA votes.
The IAEA "will report on the situation in Iran and the way the Iranian authorities are not cooperating with the international agency," said a French government official, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity.
He said the Russian and Chinese ministers had initially been reluctant to agree to refer Iran to the Security Council, but were persuaded of the need for the council members to show a united front.
"It was very important to make sure they are all together on this issue and all agree on the same position."
"This is in the hands of the IAEA," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said of the agreement. "We're not going to say anything at this point."
On Monday, Rice said the world agreed that Iran should not have the means of developing a nuclear weapon, and she criticized Iran's response to Russian attempts to mediate in the standoff.
"We believe that there is a lot of life left in the diplomacy," Rice said. "After all, going to the Security Council is not the end of diplomacy. It's just diplomacy in a different, more robust context."