Iran's resumption of uranium conversion Monday is set to be taken up at an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency Tuesday - a move that could result in referral of the Iranian nuclear issue to the United Nations Security Council.
The council, in turn, could set in motion an international effort to isolate Iran politically and economically, something Iran has long wished to avoid.
The flurry of activity over Iran followed the Islamic Republic's terse rejection over the weekend of a European offer of economic incentives, including help with nuclear-energy generation, in exchange for verifiably giving up all nuclear activities that could lead to a bomb. The events represent a ratcheting up of a confrontation with the West that some officials in the United States have long considered inevitable, given their assumption that Iran is determined to join the nuclear club.
Western officials likened Iran's step to an "in-your-face move" by a nation in a political transition, with a new president in tune with the reigning conservative mullahs. But Iranian officials, who insist their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, say the activity is part of Iran's right to develop nuclear power.
"Part of this for the Iranians is to make a statement about sovereignty and national pride," says Miriam Rajkumar, a South Asia expert in nuclear affairs with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They don't want to end up an international pariah like North Korea, but for them it really is an issue of sovereign rights."
European officials remained cautious Monday, noting that Iran had not delivered an official response to the incentive plan as of late afternoon in Europe. Some also saw as positive the fact that the abrupt resumption of activity was apparently taking place under IAEA surveillance, but the move nonetheless appeared to constitute a violation that officials had said would prompt international action.
Last week representatives of Germany and France, which along with Britain have been negotiating with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, said any resumption of activities at facilities sealed months ago would probably trigger referral of Iran to the Security Council. Monday Iran announced that it had resumed uranium conversion at a facility in the city of Isfahan, in effect restarting nuclear fuel development that had been shut down since an agreement signed in Paris last November.
Whether the Security Council would take strong punitive action against Iran remains in doubt - and Iran appears to be betting it won't, experts say - given Iran's close and growing ties to Security Council members Russia and China.
Russia is building a nuclear reactor in the Iranian city of Bushehr, and China is strengthening its energy ties to Iran. In October, Iran signed an agreement to supply China with natural gas over 30 years, while it granted the Chinese state-owned petrochemical company, Sinopec, a 50 percent stake in one of its major oil fields.
The European offer to Iran envisages a major new international energy role for Iran, French officials say. In an interview published Sunday, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said the plan of the "EU3" proposes making Iran a "major actor in the transport of oil between Central Asia and Europe." But Iran's snub of the European offer falls in line with a calculated shift in Iran's geopolitical interests, some experts say, away from Europe toward new regional partners including India and China.
Iran's role as a major supplier of energy for the world market - especially at a time of record-high oil prices - is precisely why its leaders are betting that the international community may not get tough over its nuclear program, experts say.
"They may have the tactical advantage," says Ms. Rajkumar. What Iran is undertaking so far is legal under the Non- Proliferation Treaty, she notes. That, and the fact that Iran is resuming fuel-cycle work under IAEA supervision, may soften the agency's reaction to Iran's moves.