Page last updated at 10:00 GMT, Monday, 16 January 2006

Uncertain outcome to Iran impasse

By Nick Childs
BBC World Affairs Correspondent

Iranian MPs at the Isfahan nuclear station in Iran
Iran says it has a right to develop nuclear power
The London meeting of UN officials to discuss the Iran nuclear issue could prove crucial in determining the next steps in the escalating diplomatic stand-off.

They could include referral of the matter to the Security Council and possible sanctions.

Iran denies it plans to develop nuclear weapons, but also says it will not be intimidated by international pressure.

The Western powers represented at the meeting are pretty clear that it is time to take Iran to the Security Council - even if they are not sure what it should then do.

Russia has hinted that it will not stand in the way of such a move. China's position is more opaque. So a lot could ride on this gathering, as well as on the intense diplomacy which continues behind the scenes.

No smoking gun

The public statements from both sides suggest there is little hope of renewed dialogue at the moment.

Britain, France, and Germany, who have been heading the diplomacy, say things are at an impasse.

Iran talks of wanting to maintain dialogue, but it also complains of big-power bullying. And the tone of the remarks emerging from Tehran bears little hint of compromise.

There is, of course, no "smoking gun" of evidence against Tehran. It protests that it is innocent on the nuclear weapons development charge, but its recent actions have clearly only heightened the suspicions and unease of many.

In Washington, the word remains that the US will not... take the military option off the table

But there is also international unease about the potential impact of economic sanctions on Iran, particularly on the world's fragile oil market.

Charting a diplomatic course that is tough enough for the Americans but keeps the likes of Russia and China on board, and has the desired effect on Tehran, will not be easy.

From Washington, the word remains that the United States will not and should not take the military option off the table, and that will be in the back of many people's minds.

But there is also no sign of any appetite for it among Americans.

The emphasis of Western diplomats at the moment is on achieving as broad an international consensus as possible.

And that will dictate a careful, step-by-step approach, that might not even involve sanctions straightaway, or at most very targeted ones.

Diplomatic dance

If the matter does get to the Security Council, a verbal rebuke of Iran may be the first step. Travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats could be one of the targeted sanctions options as a second step.

Even limited economic sanctions could be highly problematic, because they represent such a potential double-edged sword.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
High stakes are at play

The hope will be that raising the diplomatic temperature will eventually bring the sides back to dialogue.

But there is little disguising the fact that - on both sides of the divide - the stakes are very high.

This could still be a long-drawn-out diplomatic dance, with the calculations and concerns of the main parties changing as time passes.

The problem is that no-one is really sure how wide the window for diplomacy is.

And the risk of miscalculation will continue to rise as time goes by.

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