The International Atomic Energy Agency has voted to refer Iran's nuclear file to the United Nations Security Council. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the next steps facing the international community and discusses one option: a military strike against Iran.
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, civilian purposes.
While experts may disagree on Iran's ultimate intentions, they agree that Tehran is setting up facilities that would allow it to eventually build nuclear weapons. They say Iran is approaching the point where it can produce - on a large scale - enriched uranium. Low enriched uranium can be used for civilian nuclear plants - but highly enriched uranium can be used for a nuclear bomb.
For the past several years, three European countries - Britain, Germany and France - have been negotiating with Iran. Their efforts were aimed at providing Iran with economic incentives in exchange for curtailing its uranium enrichment activities.
The talks made little progress, and in August Iran resumed uranium conversion - that is converting uranium into gas - at its Isfahan plant. On January 10, Tehran took steps to resume enrichment activities at its plant in Natanz.
For years, the International Atomic Energy Agency has been warning Iran to end its plans to enrich uranium. But Tehran's decision to re-open the Natanz plant in early January forced the IAEA to take the next step: refer Iran's nuclear file to the U.N. Security Council.
Daryl Kimball, the head of the Arms Control Association, an independent, Washington D.C.-based research organization, says the crisis has deepened between Iran and the IAEA.
"It essentially means that they have not been able to resolve it," he said. "And I think the way this would change the debate, is that this would not be so much of a technical debate about whether Iran has met its safeguards agreements, whether it is living by the letter of the law, but it will be more of a political discussion about aims and intentions. And there will also be the backdrop of the possibility of political and economic sanctions."
It is unclear when the Security Council will actually take up the Iranian nuclear issue.
"And more importantly, even if it does take it on right now, or a few months down the road, it does not mean that there will be an actual resolution or any action taken by the United Nations Security Council," said Sammy Salama, an expert on Iran with the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
The U.S. and other members of the U.N. body said any decision by the Council should await a report by the IAEA Director to the organization's next meeting, scheduled March 6.
But Iran was quick to respond to the IAEA's referral. It said it would proceed to enrich uranium and end all surprise U.N. inspections of its nuclear facilities.
Experts agree the escalation of the crisis could increase tensions even more and inflame the rhetoric on all sides. Some Israeli and American politicians - as well as some Bush administration officials - have talked about keeping all options open - in other words reserving the right to use military force against Iran.
Speaking in London January 30, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talked about the military option.
"As to military issues, we have said that it is not on the agenda, because we believe that there is a lot of life left in the diplomacy," she said. "There is a diplomatic solution for the taking. After all, going to the Security Council is not the end of diplomacy, it is just diplomacy in a different, more robust context. But the president of the United States doesn't take his options off the table. And frankly I do not think people should want the president of the United States to take his options off the table."
For his part, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told German newspaper Handelsblatt that the option of military strikes against Iran should be kept open.
Daryl Kimball, from the Arms Control Association, says talking about military strikes could have a negative effect.
"I think it is extremely premature and I think it is counterproductive for politicians in parliaments or Congress and even in the governments of Israel or the United States to be talking openly of military options, because this only feeds the security paranoia of those in Iran who believe that the pursuit of the nuclear weapons option is needed in order to deter such attacks," he said.
Many experts say the international community faces some crucial decisions in the next few weeks and months as it tries to persuade Iran to forego its uranium enrichment program. They say - whether it is diplomacy or diplomacy backed by sanctions with ultimately, the threat of military force - each option must be carefully weighed in order to minimize the chances for the crisis to spin out of control.