Pressure is building over Iran's nuclear programs, as the UN's nuclear watchdog expects to vote Friday to strongly rebuke the Islamic Republic for inadequate cooperation.
The degree of frustration with Iran - and its frequently changing explanations about key aspects of its declarations, as spelled out in several reports by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - is growing among diplomats and inspectors alike.
Diplomatic jousting has intensified this week. Europe and the US have pushed for a tough resolution. But now Iranian leaders say they may reconsider ties with the IAEA if the 35-member board of governors, meeting in Vienna this week, does not mute its criticism.
Iran counterattacked Thursday after the UN acknowledged that it had wrongfully accused Iran in its June 1 report of not declaring imported parts for advanced P-2 centrifuges, which could be used to make nuclear weapons.
"This has been a big mistake," said Hossein Moussavian, secretary of the foreign policy committee of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. "It shows Iranian cooperation, Iranian information has been full and precise, on time, with no contradictions and no changes period."
Nevertheless, Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA director general, said the resolution will ask Iran to "accelerate cooperation."
Mr. ElBaradei noted that "lack of clarity" persisted about Iran's centrifuge program, which he suggested may be too large for research alone. Diplomats say the resolution "deplores" Iran's foot-dragging, and expresses "serious concern."
President Mohamed Khatami declared Wednesday that Iran was no longer bound by any "moral commitment" to continue suspending uranium enrichment, and could reject the IAEA decision. Several hundred Iranian hardliners took to nuclear sites in Iran Wednesday, accusing the West of injustice and vowing to defend atomic assets with their lives.
Though the IAEA was not expected to formalize a deadline for complete Iranian compliance - a wish of US officials, who accuse Iran of secretly pursuing nuclear weapons under the facade of a peaceful energy program - the fact that the vote was spearheaded by Britain, France, and Germany underscores Iran's growing isolation on the issue.
The foreign ministers of the EU-3, as diplomats refer to the troika, negotiated with Tehran last October. Iran agreed to total openness and tougher inspections, and to suspend uranium enrichment, in exchange for assistance with peaceful power programs.
But IAEA reporting shows that Iran continued with some of its enrichment activities, has waffled on damaging details, and delayed opening some military sites. Indeed, European concerns in the past about how sensitive IAEA wording might offend Iran is noticeably absent this time.
"If the Europeans had done significantly less, they would have run into stiff opposition [from IAEA nations]," says Michael Levi, a nuclear expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The real turnaround will come when they express a willingness to leave the IAEA process. The US wants a line beyond which Iran would be taken to the Security Council [to face possible sanctions].
"Europe wants to know what on earth would happen [if] they went to the Security Council," says Mr. Levi, "and no one can give them a straight answer."
Still, Iran has made it clear that it expected far more kudos for its cooperation with the IAEA. Iranian officials say the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) gives them the right to pursue nuclear power.
"There is a very deep pessimism about the intentions of the [IAEA] about Iran policies," says Elahe Koulaiei, a former member of Iran's parliamentary foreign affairs and national security committee, now teaching at Tehran University. "What is very important is building confidence, from inside Iran and outside. [We must] conclude this and remove all ambiguities."
But confidence has been in short supply, despite optimism last fall when Iran signed the Additional Protocol of the NPT, which permits snap inspections. The protocol has yet to be ratified, and Iran's parliament, or majlis, has come back under conservative control during spring elections.
Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi - who said this week that it "is an irreversible path" that Iran "has to be recognized ... as a member of the nuclear club" - sought to use the political shift in Iran as leverage.
"'We have told the Europeans that the new majlis does not think the same way as the previous majlis, and that should be considered in their calculations," the official IRNA news agency reported him saying.
The tough talk from Tehran led the US ambassador to the IAEA, Kenneth Brill, to charge Iran with "trying to intimidate the board and individual states."
The IAEA says it has not yet been able to determine whether Iran is pursing a clandestine weapons program. "There are all these fissures and faultlines [in Iran]," says a Western diplomat in Vienna. "It's like foxhunting: the hounds are getting closer to the quarry. They're still hot on the scent."
That scent is proving difficult to follow. Analysts point to the chaotic, hydra-headed nature of Iran's ruling system. Others say the inability to make a determination shows that Iran is hiding something.
"With Iran, it's a new lie every month," says Levi, regarding Iran's frequent official declarations and amendments. "The one thing that makes it very hard to keep a straight story is when that straight story is false. They wouldn't be having the same trouble if they were just coordinating the truth."