Ahead of a UN meeting next month, Europe and the United States are still struggling to get Russia and China on board in reining in a nuclear program the West fears produces secret weapons.
Iranian defiance has left western nations split over how to deal with Teheran
While some measures against Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency seems certain when the UN watchdog agency meets in Vienna on Feb. 2, it remains unclear what kind of deadlines will be imposed on the Islamic Republic.
A diplomat close to the IAEA told AFP that key Iranian trade partner Russia wanted to divide the process bringing Iran before the UN Security Council for possible sanctions into two parts, "with a nominal referral in February but giving Iran one month to deliver on demands to suspend nuclear fuel work and to cooperate" with IAEA inspections.
The IAEA is to hold another meeting, its regularly scheduled one, on March 6.
A Western diplomat said European Union negotiators Britain, France and Germany as well as the United States had "rejected this idea outright," while diplomats said a compromise in the Russian direction may be possible.
"The United States doesn't want to wait anymore," said a non-aligned diplomat, referring to more than three years of US diplomatic efforts since it was revealed in 2002 that Iran had a secret nuclear program.
Foreign ministers of the EU-3 and EU foreign policy chief Solana
The EU negotiating trio and the United States "are trying to sell" China and Russia on a tough resolution at the IAEA board of governors meeting to send Iran before the Security Council, said a second Western diplomat, who like others interviewed asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Russia, China reluctant to penalize Iran
China, a major recipient of Iranian oil, and Russia want to give diplomacy more time in a crisis which escalated when Tehran earlier this month announced it was resuming nuclear fuel work that can also make atom bomb material.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met Mekhdi Savari, a deputy foreign minister and Iran's special envoy on Caspian Sea regional security issues in Moscow on Monday.
Lavrov voiced hope that Tehran would soften its stance on its controversial nuclear program and resume negotiations to resolve international concerns over it, news agencies said.
"We hope that our Iranian friends can adopt a position that will help ease tensions and resume negotiations," Lavrov said.
"The Russians need cooperation with Iran to deal with their soft underbelly," non-proliferation expert Gary Samore said, referring to the mainly Muslim republics of Central Asia, formerly part of the Soviet Union.
"A real problem the United States and the Europeans face is that it is hard for them to explain why referral to the Security Council is going to be helpful," Samore, a former White House arms control expert who now works at the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, Illinois, said. "No one thinks political pressure and modest sanctions are going to be very effective."
Russia, which has a billion-dollar contract to build Iran's first nuclear reactor, and China each have vetoes on the council and are worried about the crisis escalating.
Rising oil prices fuel fears
The non-aligned diplomat said there was already fall-out as countries like India, a major client for Iranian oil and a big player on the IAEA's 35-nation board, are feeling the pinch from high prices for crude oil. Iran, which has 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, has threatened to use its supply of crude to the global market as a weapon.
"All of us are worried about high oil prices," the diplomat said.
Iran on Sunday denounced the upcoming emergency IAEA meeting as "political" but said it was not worried about the crisis ending up at the Security Council.
Iranian President Ahmadinejad has sparked international anger
A week ago Iran's hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also vowed his country would not back down over sensitive nuclear work.
Unease over Iranian defiance
Iran on Sunday gave a fresh show of its determination, enlisting some 1,000 athletes to form a human shield in front of a key nuclear facility.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz warned this week that his government would not tolerate a "nuclear option" for Iran.
Israel, which views Iran as its number one enemy, had its fears heightened in October when Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be "wiped off the map."
In France, President Jacques Chirac also warned that his country could use nuclear weapons against state sponsors of terrorism -- although he did not single out any nation.