The possibility of Iran being brought before the UN Security Council is increasing as Germany, France and Britain lose their patience in negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program.
How long before EU-Iran talks make way for UN sanction hearings?
The talks are still a week away, but the chances of Iran being hauled before the UN Security Council over its suspect nuclear program have never been stronger, diplomats said ahead of a meeting in Europe.
When the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany meet the Islamic republic's top nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, the "only thing we will agree upon is that we disagree", a European diplomat told AFP.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (left), German counterpart Joschka Fischer (center) and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier (right) are supposed to negotiate with Iran
It is a bleak assessment that Iran shares, describing next week's emergency meeting as a "last chance" to save its long-running talks with the so-called EU-3. Tehran has said that Germany, France and Britain were being held hostage to the hardline US position. The current crisis is centered on Iran's demand to resume some of its sensitive uranium work, in violation of a deal with the Europeans in November 2004.
That accord opened long-term negotiations on Iran's nuclear fuel drive -- the focus of fears the country is seeking the bomb -- with the EU offering incentives in exchange for "objective guarantees" from Iran.
"The objective guarantees are not there, so there is no question of us agreeing to a resumption of any uranium activities, that includes conversion," said a European diplomat close to the issue.
To convert or not to convert?
Uranium conversion, which Iran wants to restart, is a precursor to the process of enriching uranium -- which can make the core of a nuclear weapon. Iran insists, however, that its bid to master the full nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment, is merely aimed at generating electricity and is a right for any country that has signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Hasan Rowhani. Will he play hardball with the EU?
Iran has proposed commencing a phased resumption of fuel cycle work, but that has been rejected. The Europeans want Iran to dismantle the program altogether -- in other words the same kind of deal that Britain and the United States reached with Libya.
"The Iranians have made just one proposal, and the proposal is not acceptable to us," said the diplomat, who was speaking on condition that he not be named.
That would not mean an end to diplomacy with Tehran and before any debate happens at the Security Council, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, would review the matter. It would be from there that the matter would be sent to New York -- although that does not automatically mean sanctions. Russian and China would most likely hinder such a move, so a warning to Iran would be most likely.
Who'll blink first?
Those close to the talks are not sanguine about either side giving in. One diplomat said that the two sides looked very determined.
"It's like two cars heading for a collision. Which driver is going to chicken out first?" he said.
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami (right) shakes hands with China's Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing. Iran has been able to depend on China's diplomatic support in negotiations over its nuclear program
Seen as the only chance for the matter to stay out of the Security Council though is a last-minute Iranian compromise. Last week, under international pressure and after a telephone call from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Iran agreed to the four-way meeting and delay its resumption of uranium conversion work.
"The Iranians do not want to go the Security Council," said one of the EU diplomats. "They know that they'll end up in the wrong pipeline, one which could lead to sanctions."