The head of the UN nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, has appealed to both Iran and the West to refrain from escalating their dangerous game of brinkmanship, which has entered an unpredictable phase after the election of a hardline Iranian president.
Talks between Iran and the European Union, which has been leading negotiations aimed at preventing the Iranians from building a nuclear bomb, broke down in August, when the Iranians resumed nuclear-related activities at their Isfahan plant.
The main hope of resuming the dialogue now resides in compromise proposals from Russia, which is offering to enrich uranium for Iran outside its territory. Uranium enrichment is the critical stage in nuclear power which can produce weapons grade fuel.
In an interview in his 28th floor office at IAEA headquarters overlooking the Danube in Vienna, Mr ElBaradei noted that Iran has not rejected the Russian proposal outright, and he said he expected "talks about talks" to be held before next month.
But he warned that if Iran carries out a threat to reopen its mothballed Natanz underground enrichment plant, a dangerous escalation will ensue, and raise fresh questions about Iran's insistence that its nuclear intentions are peaceful. "If they start enriching this is a major issue and a serious concern for the international community," he said.
Although IAEA officials have said it would take at least two years for Natanz to become fully operational, Mr ElBaradei believes that once the facility is up and running, the Iranians could be "a few months" away from a nuclear weapon. "That's why there is the concern of the international community about Iran," he said, "because lots of people feel it could be a dual purpose programme".
Did he believe the Iranians were building a nuclear weapon? "The jury's out," he said. "It's difficult to read their intention. We're still going through the programme to make sure it's all for peaceful purposes.
"I know they are trying to acquire the full fuel cycle. I know that acquiring the full fuel cycle means that a country is months away from nuclear weapons, and that applies to Iran and everybody else."
Mr ElBaradei said he could see no victors from an escalation. "Everybody would hurt," he said, referring to all parties in the dispute. "You would then open a Pandora's box. There would be efforts to isolate Iran; Iran would retaliate; and at the end of the day you have to go back to the negotiating table to find the solution."
Israel has warned that it will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran, and has hinted that it would take preemptive action as it did in Iraq when it bombed the Osiraq reactor in 1980. The Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, repeated yesterday that "it's clear we can't have a situation where Iran will become a nuclear power". Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has publicly called for Israel to be "wiped off the map".
President George Bush insists that all options remain on the table, but the reality is that the US already has its hands full in Iraq.
So for now, the Bush administration is prepared to let Britain, France and Germany continue to take the lead and seek a negotiated solution. The EU troika remains adamant that Iran should be barred from controlling its own nuclear fuel cycle - even under international supervision - and the threat of referral to the UN Security Council remains an option for the IAEA board of governors.
But it is generally believed that Iran holds all the cards at this point. If referred to the Security Council, the Iranians could use their oil-charged political influence to prevent any punitive action. And there remains the fear that the mullahs would pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, following the lead of North Korea which is believed to have enough weapons grade plutonium for at least six bombs.
While IAEA officials recognise that progress has been made in the EU negotiations, the talks so far have only bought time.
Despite the developments in Iran and North Korea, Mr ElBaradei said the most worrying nuclear threat came from the prospect of nuclear terrorism. "The deterrence concept does not apply in the case of terrorists. That is the most critical danger we are facing now because there is a lot of nuclear material and nuclear facilities that need to be adequately protected."
He was talking about the possibility of a "dirty bomb" which could spread radiation and create widespread panic, or the theft of a nuclear weapon. Although he said that such a scenario was "highly unlikely", the countries where the risk was greatest, he said without the slightest hint of irony, were those such as Iraq and Afghanistan where governments are not in control of their territory.
Mr ElBaradei, an Egyptian lawyer, has not always got on with the Bush administration which tried to block him from serving a second term as IAEA chief. He was after all the man who publicly demolished one of the central planks of the US argument for war on Iraq by revealing in the Security Council that documents purporting to show that the Iraqis had attempted to procure uranium from Niger were fakes. IAEA inspectors trying to unravel the biggest ever network of black market nuclear trafficking are still being refused access to the scientist at the centre of the scandal, A Q Khan, from Pakistan, an important US ally in the "war on terror".
Mr ElBaradei's credibility and authority have been reinforced by the award in October of the Nobel Peace Prize, an accolade which has added to his workload. Tomorrow, he will be in London to address the International Institute for Strategic Studies on his ideas for controlling the headlong rush for nuclear power, in particular the uranium enrichment process.
"If you have that capacity you are also buying yourself a smart insurance policy. You are sending a very powerful message to your neighbour - you don't even need to have the weapon," he said. He is calling for the IAEA to control a multilateral "fuel bank" a move intended to remove the justification for countries to develop indigenous fuel cycle capabilities - the issue at the heart of the dispute with Iran.
Mr ElBaradei and the IAEA will receive their Nobel award on Saturday at a ceremony in Oslo.Reuse content