The United Nations Security Council has given Iran until the end of the month to suspend its uranium enrichment activity - a process that could either be used for civilian purposes or to build nuclear weapons. The 15-nation council also asked Mohamed el-Baradei - head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or I.A.E.A. - to report back on Iran's compliance with the demands.
The U.N. Security Council action is the latest development in an ongoing confrontation between many Western nations and Iran over Tehran's nuclear weapons ambitions. The United States and Europe believe Tehran is seeking to develop a nuclear arsenal. But Iran's government, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says its program is only aimed at producing fuel for peaceful, civilian purposes.
At a news conference several weeks ago before the U.N. decision, President Bush repeated the U.S. view that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable and would pose a threat to international security. "If the Iranians were to have a nuclear weapon, they could blackmail the world. If the Iranians were to have a nuclear weapon, they could proliferate," said President Bush.
Nuclear "Red Line"
Experts are divided as to exactly when Iran will be able to get the scientific knowledge to build nuclear bombs. Estimates vary from two to 10 years. Daryl Kimball is head of the Arms Control Association, an independent research organization.
"The Iranians still have quite a ways to go. We're still not at a so-called 'red line' when they are about to produce fissile material for weapons. It is also not clear, for sure, whether they want to have a nuclear weapons program. But, at the same time, the I.A.E.A. cannot be sure that this program is fully for peaceful purposes," says Daryl Kimball.
Analysts point out that in 2003, it was discovered that Iran had carried out secret nuclear activities for 18 years in breach of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Former American 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, going back to the 1970s.
"At least some Iranians who consider themselves heirs to the Persian Empire look around them and they see two areas that used to be Persian Empire satellites - Pakistan and Israel - with nuclear weapons. They see the Russians with nuclear weapons to the north and they see American armies on three sides - east, west and south. And they say to themselves: ' we want to be a great country, we want to be a great power - and what is the currency of a great power these days, it's the possession of nuclear weapons,'" says Tom Graham.
Some analysts say resolving the current standoff will be difficult and will require flexibility on both sides, because western nations have one view of the problem, while Iran sees it from a totally different perspective. Charles Kupchan, from the Council on Foreign Relations, says for Americans and Europeans, the confrontation is only about Tehran's potential nuclear weapons program - and nothing else.
The Iranian Perspective
"From an Iranian perspective, this is not a confrontation simply about nuclear issues. It is much more about national dignity, about the ability of Iran to exercise its sovereignty and its rights, similar to other countries around the world. And this sensitivity to the question of sovereignty and rights goes back to the 19th century, when Iran became ensnarled in the great game between Britain and Russia - and then after World War Two, in the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. So for many, many decades, Iran has felt as it it's a pawn in great power games. And in many respects, I think the Islamic revolution is less about religious fundamentalism and zeal and much more about the ability of Iran's theocratic regime to wrap itself in the mantle of nationalism, to say, 'We have finally freed Iran from being under the thumb of the great powers.' The nuclear issue is addressed within that historical context," says Charles Kupchan.
And for Iranian-born author Behzad Yaghmaian - now living in the United States as professor of political economy at Ramapo College in New Jersey - there is another interesting political twist to the nuclear issue.
"The Iranians are opposed to the Iranian government - the majority of them - they don't support this government, especially [President Ahmadinejad] and the crazies around him. At the same time, because of being bullied by the United States, Iranians - across the board - support Iran's ambitions to build nuclear energy, whether that is for peaceful or non-peaceful matters. Iranians are behind that call. So here the United States has created a very conflicting situation: people who oppose their government but are actually behind their government in this particular battle," says Behzad Yaghmaian.
For his part, Charles Kupchan says the United States could use the Iranians' sense of national pride in a positive way - by beginning a dialogue. "To engage Iran, is to speak to this sense of national pride which is so strongly resonant in Iran, rather than confronting that national pride head-on by saying: 'Shut down your nuclear research, or else,'" says Kupchan.
In the meantime, the world community is waiting for the International Atomic Energy Agency's report at the end of this month on whether Iran has complied with the demand to stop its uranium enrichment program. If Iran ignores that request, experts say the U.N. Security Council will have to consider stronger measures - even maybe sanctions - to force Iran to comply.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.