The United Nation Security Council is to meet on Saturday to consider action on a draft resolution aimed at Iran's nuclear defiance, but a planned attendance by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been cancelled.
Ahmadinejad had planned to appear before the 15-nation council in New York to defend his nuclear programme, which Western governments charge could result in the production of nuclear weapons. Tehran has rejected the implication.
But foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad-Ali Hosseini late on Friday said the leader would not attend and blamed the situation on "negligence" by American officials in issuing the visa for the presidential delegation and plane crew in time.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki will head the Iranian delegation to the Saturday meeting set for 3 pm.
The New York visit by Ahmadinejad had been criticized by several political circles inside Iran as being not fruitful, and observers in Tehran speculated that the visa issue had just been an excuse to cancel the visit.
US Ambassador Alejandro Wolff's remarks echoed the observation.
"Obviously the visa issue was an excuse (for not coming)," Wolff said. "The visas were issued in ample time for the president to come. Every application that was submitted and filled properly was accepted."
In Washington, the US State Department said visas were issued in Switzerland Friday for Ahmadinejad and his delegation, including security and flight crew, to travel to New York.
"Any suggestion that visa issues are the cause of President Ahmadinejad's decision not to travel to New York is false," Tom Casey, State Department deputy spokesman, said.
"Rather, it would appear that he is unwilling to stand before the Council and take the heat for his continued defiance of the international community."
The council completed Friday the text calling for stricter targeted sanctions, but offering at the same time a long-term agreement on Iran's right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
The two-track approach answers opponents of sanctions by leaving the doors open to settle diplomatically the dispute before sanctions would kick in.
If Iran agrees to suspend uranium enrichment activities and to negotiate, the council will uphold Iran's inalienable right to civilian nuclear technology.
The draft, written initially by the council's five veto-wielding permanent members - the US, Russia, China, France and Britain - and Germany, was amended by other council members who insisted on a diplomatic solution and an enhancement of the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Wolff of the US and the ambassadors of Britain and France all said Friday night that they were confident the council vote would be unanimous.
Iran would be given 60 days, starting with the adoption of the draft by the council, to abandon its programme of uranium conversion or face "further appropriate measures" in addition to tightened targeted sanctions against its nuclear technology that were included in two previous adopted resolutions. Tehran has ignored those resolutions.
The sanctions would enter into force if IAEA reported Iran's failure to establish "full and sustained suspension of all activities" related to uranium enrichment.