Divided US and European officials stalled a meeting of the UN's atomic watchdog agency under way in Vienna Wednesday, as they weighed Iran's suspect nuclear file.
While the current chapter of Iran's nuclear saga appeared to be nearing an end during the meeting this week of the 35-member board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), wrangling over the wording of a resolution is exposing wide gaps between the US and Europeans over how to deal with Iran.
Even as the IAEA reports "progress" with Iran on solving several outstanding issues, closed-door haggling over the latest version of the resolution - a copy of which has been seen by the Monitor - has led to an impasse. US officials tried to harden language and impose an Oct. 31 deadline to "remedy all failures identified to date" by the IAEA, while also deleting reference to the right of any state to pursue peaceful nuclear energy.
"There has been a narrowing of the gap" on unresolved issues between Iran and the IAEA, says a Western diplomat in Vienna close to the agency. "There is also the real world, [which is] not all blue sky, and an acknowledgement that scientific verification can't solve everything. There will always be gray areas."
By the next meeting in November, diplomats and analysts say, Iran could disappear from the IAEA agenda as a special case under investigation. Or it could be hauled before the UN Security Council, to face charges it violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The US-European negotiations that kept the IAEA meeting from convening for two days are highly charged. The US wants the deadline to serve as a "trigger" to send Iran to the UN Security Council if Iran doesn't apply.
"This can't go on forever it," said Hossein Mousavian, the top Iranian delegate. Iran "has taken all the confidence-building measures necessary."
But that is not the view of the European authors of the draft resolution, which had noted the "generally positive tenor of ... Iranian cooperation" with the IAEA - words the US wants deleted.
It also adds its "serious concern" about Iran's failure to fulfill promises to halt uranium enrichment activities; about plans to carry out the first step of the fuel cycle by converting 37 tons of yellowcake to uranium hexafluoride gas.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei rejects any deadlines on the work of his inspectors. The latest IAEA report found that "most of the [highly enriched uranium] contamination" found in Iran "correlates reasonably" with that found on imported components, and wasn't created in Iran.
"We haven't seen any concrete proof that there is a weapons program," Mr. ElBaradei said. "Can we say everything is peaceful? Obviously we are not at that stage."
The draft resolution underscores the frustration of Britain, France, and Germany that Iran has not lived up to an October 2003 deal to stop enrichment programs, and calls for a "definitive determination" to be made by November.
Iran says it wants only to create nuclear power, and to control its own nuclear fuel cycle - a demand permitted by the NPT, which Iran has signed. But the US believes that Iran's civilian program masks nuclear weapon ambitions.
"The point has come to the real crunch issue between Iran and the international community: Should it have access to the full fuel cycle?" says Shahram Chubin, head of research at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. "It is entitled under the NPT, but given its past behavior, including non-declaration of enrichment over 20 years, some people think that it doesn't have the right."
Iran's regime has "convinced Iranians [the fuel cycle] is an inalienable right," says Mr. Chubin. "It will be very difficult for them to dismantle certain facilities, and say they are going to accept dependency - a bad word [in Iran] - on foreigners to give them enriched uranium."
Iran's Mehr News Agency quoted "an informed source" saying that Iran may take the issue to the International Court of Justice in The Hague if it is forced to stop enrichment plans.
Waffling on enrichment activities has turned Europeans closer to Washington's view. This week, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said that Iranian actions were "highly alarming." British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said: "Iran has to understand, it can't turn confidence on and off like a tap."
The US and Israel has also ratcheted up the pressure in recent months. Visiting Jerusalem before the Vienna meeting to "compare notes" - in the reported words of one senior US official - with Israel on the Iranian nuclear issue, US Undersecretary of State John Bolton was asked if the US would consider military action if talks fail.
"We are determined that they are not going to achieve nuclear weapons capability," Mr. Bolton said.
"It may be the IAEA right now is not finding any problem with Iranian cooperation, but I don't see anything close to a resolution," says David Albright, a former IAEA nuclear inspector in Iraq and head of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
There is time for talks, says Mr. Albright. Iraq under Saddam Hussein had built a facility for making nuclear weapons, besides just enriching uranium. "In Iran, you can't find any place - you don't even hear of any place - like [that facility] in Iraq," says Albright.