By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website
As Iran ignores another Security Council deadline to suspend the enrichment of uranium, the idea of allowing it to engage in limited enrichment under strict inspection is being more widely discussed.
Mohamed ElBaradei: Creating a controversy
This would be a "third way" solution between the continuation of sanctions, which have been ineffective in stopping Iran's activities, and a military attack, which would plunge the region into conflict and probably not be supported by some of the closest US allies.
So urgent is the situation becoming that there is talk in intelligence circles of mounting operations against Iran in which its purchases of nuclear and missile equipment on the black market (to which it has been forced by sanction to turn) would be sabotaged by the deliberate planting of defective material.
Such operations could, at best, simply slow Iran down, but the US network CBS says that some are already underway. ABC News reports in addition that President Bush has authorised the CIA to conduct what ABC calls "non-lethal covert action against Iran involving propaganda, disinformation and the manipulation of Iran's international banking transactions". These stories indicate that the US is not going to adopt the "third way".
Accept but limit
The concept of a negotiated agreement to accept but also to put limits on enrichment has gained ground with comments from Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the UN's nuclear agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In an interview with the New York Times, he said: "We believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich.
"From now, it's simply a question of perfecting that knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that's a fact."
Dr ElBaradei said: "The fact of the matter is that one of the purposes of suspension, keeping them from getting the knowledge, has been overtaken by events."
(Update: In a speech on Thursday, Mr ElBaradei sought to explain his remarks. He said that he wanted to prevent Iran from reaching
industrial-scale production of enriched uranium.
He added that in his view, Iran was three to eight years from making a bomb, if that is what it chooses to do. Iran says it will not do so.)
His remarks about accepting some enrichment immediately led to complaints from the US and those countries most strongly supporting it - Britain, France (President Nicolas Sarkozy holding firm here) and Germany.
They reckon that it undermines the current approach, which is a combination of applying pressure through sanctions (aimed at stopping Iran from getting nuclear and missile technology) and offering help with the development of civilian nuclear energy, as long as enrichment is not part of that.
The British UN ambassador Sir Emyr Jones Parry told reporters in London recently that if Iran did not comply with UN demands, there would be more sanctions. "There will be more of the same - more people and more companies in Iran under sanctions," he said.
The issue is expected to be discussed at the G8 summit in Germany early next month.
Mark Fitzpatrick, nuclear watcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London said that the idea of an enrichment agreement was a "fallback position."
"If Iran gets enrichment technology, then the present strategy will have failed," he said. "However, if this strategy is seriously challenged, there will be tension between those whose impulse is to hold out for suspension and those who think there is a new reality.
"An agreement with Iran would have to limit its enrichment, perhaps to the number of centrifuges it has already installed, and there would have to be a strict system of inspections, with surprise visits. Such a system would have to go beyond the extra measures Iran agreed to some time ago but never ratified. The closest precedent would be what happened in Iraq where inspectors had the power to go where they wanted."
Iran says that it has no intention of building nuclear weapons but is simply exercising its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to develop fuel to a limited level for use in power stations.
The US and some Western countries argue that Iran does not need to make the fuel itself and that it wants to position itself, at least, to be able to enrich fuel to the higher level needed for a nuclear bomb.