Iran's new president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad raised the stakes in a standoff with the West over his country's nuclear ambitions by offering to share its atomic know-how with other Islamic nations in the Middle East and Africa, alarming the United States.

The foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana made a joint appeal to Ahmadinejad after tough talks with his foreign minister and national security adviser at UN headquarters.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the Europeans still hoped to avoid referring Iran's secretive nuclear programme to the top UN body but the next step depended on proposals that Ahmadinejad has promised to announce on Saturday.

Isolation

In an interview, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted Iran's fear of international isolation gave the Europeans and their US ally continued leverage over Tehran.

"So let's not paint the Iranians as having no liabilities and no vulnerabilities in this process. They have considerable vulnerability in getting completely isolated from the international community, which is why they're fighting so hard not to," she told Newsweek magazine.

The EU demands Iran resume its
freeze on uranium conversion

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said the EU offer of economic, security and technological incentives was still on the table and the key now lay with the Iranian proposals.

The ministers reported no breakthrough and an EU diplomat said Iran was unyielding on a European demand that it resume a freeze on uranium conversion - a precursor to enriching fuel that can be used in nuclear power stations or to make a bomb.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy called the talks "very frank", a diplomatic euphemism for a clash.

Faced with substantial opposition, the EU and the US backed away from an attempt to have the world nuclear watchdog report Iran to the Security Council next week.

No IAEA majority

Rice has acknowledged that Washington and its allies may lack a convincing majority on the 35-member board of the International Atomic Energy Agency when it meets next Monday.

But she told Newsweek: "So yeah it takes a little bit more time to pull this together multilaterally, but you're actually in a much stronger position to prevent that outcome (of Iran resuming weapons-applicable uranium enrichment) if you really focus on that as the outcome you want to prevent."

Rice said Iran does not want to
be isolated internationally

Solana said on Thursday an IAEA majority was uncertain.

A European diplomat said intensive lobbying of key members Russia, China and India failed to produce broad support for a referral. Brazil and Pakistan were hostile and "swing voters" Tunisia, Algeria and Nigeria were in doubt.

"We would not like to be in a situation diplomatically where we have so many countries voting against our motion," another EU diplomat said, adding that a premature vote would merely divide the international community.

The EU3 handed Iran proposals on 5 August for economic, security and nuclear cooperation provided it ended sensitive nuclear work. Tehran rejected them and promptly restarted uranium conversion at a plant that had been frozen.

The Europeans then broke off the negotiations, accusing Iran of breaching a November 2004 accord to suspend all enrichment-related activity for the duration of the talks and threatening to haul it before the Security Council.

Wider negotiations

New Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on Sunday Tehran had no intention of restoring the suspension, which Iran contends was purely voluntary.

Diplomats have said Ahmadinejad may call for the nuclear negotiations to be widened to include non-aligned countries more sympathetic to Iran.

The official Iranian news agency IRNA quoted him as telling Turkey's prime minister that Iran was ready to share its technology with other Islamic countries.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told a news briefing: "Iran, as its record demonstrates, has a long history of trying to develop weapons of mass destruction, supporting terror.

"We view with concern any suggestion that Iran would seek to contribute to very destabilising and unhelpful international behaviour."