Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program remains a key problem for the international community. On September 19 the International Atomic Energy Agency will meet in Vienna, Austria to debate the issue.
The United States and Europe believe Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. But Tehran says its program is aimed at producing fuel for peaceful purposes.
Former U.S. Ambassador Tom Graham, who has been involved in every major arms control negotiation in the last 30 years, says Iran's nuclear program has existed for a long time.
"The Shah of Iran first expressed an interest in a nuclear program: he emphasized nuclear power in the 1970s, but undoubtedly, in the back of his mind and others' minds was the nuclear option. Iranians consider themselves, in some senses, anyway, as the heirs to the Persian Empire and a great country," said Ambassador Graham. "They see Pakistan to their east, Israel to their west, Russia to their north, all with atomic weaponry and the great Persian Empire, or the heir to it, is a non-nuclear state. So there is that thinking."
Experts agree that Iran has been developing a capacity to enrich uranium that would eventually allow it to manufacture nuclear weapons. But analysts are careful when answering the question how long it will take Iran to build such a weapon. Leonard Spector is a nuclear expert with the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
"All of us who watch these matters and also watch the kinds of reports that come out on these subjects, tend to be cautious now after the errors that were made in judging Iraq's capabilities in 1991, which were much further along than anyone thought, and then Iraq's capabilities in 2003 and 4, which were much further behind what the Bush administration and people like me speculated," said Mr. Spector. "So there are some new reports out about Iran, but let's be cautious about them. The CIA has stated that it would probably take Iran 10 years to acquire nuclear weapons and a recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS in London) that said it would take at least five years."
For the past several years, three European countries - Britain, France and Germany - have been negotiating with Iran and have persuaded Tehran to temporarily suspend its uranium enrichment program. The United States has not been directly involved in the talks, but backs the European effort.
Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, an independent research organization, described what is at stake. "Essentially, what the European Union is seeking to do is to find a way to indefinitely and voluntarily have the Iranians suspend their uranium enrichment activities. They are willing to provide economic assistance, investment and even to supply Iran with nuclear fuel for a civilian energy production industry," said Mr. Kimball. "Iran, however, seems quite determined to pursue, at least in some way, uranium enrichment related activities and it resumed operations of a uranium processing plant which provides feed stocks for actual uranium enrichment."
Mr. Kimball said Iran's resumption of uranium conversion has effectively ended the talks between the European Union and Tehran. "Right now, the European Union is not willing to resume these discussions until and unless Iran stops its current operations at the Isfahan uranium conversion facility. But I think that, in time, the discussions will resume," he said.
But in the meantime, experts say the international community must act and convince Iran to end its uranium enrichment program. Leonard Spector, from the Monterey Institute, says a meeting of the Board of the International Atomic Energy Agency on September 19 in Vienna, Austria, will be crucial.
"There is going to be further discussion at the International Atomic Energy Agency. There is the possibility of sending the matter to the U.N. Security Council and this may put some pressure on Iran to be a bit more forthcoming and really get the negotiations rolling again," said Mr. Spector.
The United States and some European countries favor that action. But Daryl Kimball said not everyone agrees with the option of sending the Iranian case to the U.N. Security Council. "There are a number of states who don't believe that it is either the right time to refer the case to the Security Council or that the International Atomic Energy Agency and the board of directors have proper cause to refer this to the Security Council. Russia is one of those states," he explained. "We will have to see how the other countries at the Board of Governors respond."
For his part, Ambassador Graham says getting the U.N. Security Council involved could backfire.
"I would personally view taking Iran to the Security Council and seeking sanctions against them as a counterproductive action, because on the one hand, Russia and China are highly likely to veto any proposal for sanctions, so it would not succeed," said Mr. Graham. "But even if it did, somehow succeed, Iran would just then probably promptly withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and be under no obligation for the future."
Ambassador Graham and other experts believe the best way to move forward is on the diplomatic front: getting Iran and the European Union to resume their negotiations. Analysts say there is still time to resolve the issue peacefully, because as various reports have indicated, Iran is still several steps away from producing a nuclear weapon.