This weekend Iran holds a conference aimed at showing its commitment to a peaceful nuclear program. But western powers have held talks on further sanctions as China softens its resistance to new measures.
UN talks about a new round of Iran sanctions have been "constructive"
In the shadow of possible new sanctions, Iran says foreign ministers from 15 countries will take part in a two-day nuclear disarmament conference to be held in Tehran this weekend, just days after the high-profile nuclear security summit in Washington.
The Iranian foreign ministry told reporters that 200 other foreign guests would also come to the meeting, called "Nuclear Energy for All, Nuclear Weapons for None," but did not specify the countries attending.
But as Tehran attempts to show the world its nuclear program is purely for civilian use, western powers held talks this week about slapping a fourth round of UN sanctions on the Persian Gulf nation.
The permanent representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - plus Germany, met on Wednesday about possible new sanctions on the Islamic republic over its uranium enrichment program.
The United States and its western allies believe Tehran is using its enrichment program as a cover to build nuclear weapons.
After the talks, Russia's Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters that the talks were very "constructive" and the six would meet again "very soon."
The US and other western powers are eager to see sanctions put into place soon, although a vote could be weeks away. Senior US military and intelligence officials said on Wednesday that they thought Iran could gather enough nuclear material to build a bomb within a year, and in three years' time could deploy one.
Iran says its nuclear goals are civilian - the West is skeptical
Russia and China have traditionally been against sanctions, saying they prefer using diplomacy to get Tehran to the negotiating table. But the Wednesday meeting was the second in a week that China agreed to join. China's ambassador to the UN also described the meeting as "constructive," saying consultations would continue.
That is a significant change of position for China, which depends on oil and gas-rich Iran for 11 percent of its energy needs. While it went along with three earlier UN sanctions resolutions against Iran, it had been a vocal opponent of a fourth round.
"China has, for first time, had second thoughts about Iran and sanctions. The fact that Chinese didn't just say 'no' outright was really surprising to me," Walter Posch of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told Deutsche Welle. "I didn't expect it so soon."
He said China's willingness to seriously engage in discussions over Iranian sanctions with other Security Council members shows that Beijing considers its relations with the US more important than those with Tehran.
"For China, the bottom line is always Chinese national interests," he said.
Still, Iran expert Konstatin Kosten from the German Council on Foreign Relations said even though China has softened its stance, it is unlikely it will agree to very stiff punitive measures.
"China's economic ties with Iran are too strong," he told Deutsche Welle. "When it comes to a Security Council vote, the best the others can hope for is that China abstains."
Even if China does agree to sanctions, or at least agrees not to veto them, there is much discussion over whether the punitive measures work, or if they just continue a spiral of growing distrust and outright animosity. The lines have hardened in many ways between the West and Iran, with both sides accusing the others of negotiating in bad faith.
Sanctions and Barack Obama have put Iranian President Ahmadinejad in a difficult position
"In many ways, the effects have been negative," said analyst Kosten. "They certainly haven't led to a willingness to engage with each other."
But others point to Iran's growing isolation, the curbs on foreign investment in the country and the damage inflicted on its crucial oil sector. That means Tehran is more and more reliant on China for trade and investment. If support from China softens, it could put Iran in a difficult position.
Iran's point of view
Iran is reporting that China will take part in its conference this weekend, and Russia has also said it will send a representative. While many have largely dismissing the gathering as theater, researcher Posch says it could provide insight into Iran's point of view.
The West would do well to watch closely, he said.
"Iran would like to create a counter-narrative to the Western one, and it will be interesting to see how they present their side," he said. "Especially now that they're in a difficult place faced with Obama, who has the Europeans firmly on his side, has struck a nuclear deal with Russia, and has better relations with the Islamic world."
What is most important in this ongoing nuclear stalemate, according to Kosten, is to stay engaged, especially given the timeline laid out this week by US intelligence services.
And while the international community is eager to see real progress on this issue that to many seems to drag on interminably, with the same old arguments, actions and counter-actions repeated time and time again, Kosten said a strategy of aiming for small steps forward is likely the best one, along with continued dialog.
"It's critical that the lines of communication stay open. Even at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the US stayed in contact," he said. "Otherwise we could see a real escalation."
Author: Kyle James
Editor: Rob Mudge