The International Atomic Energy Agency, or I.A.E.A., is expected to meet early next month to discuss Iran's nuclear program and refer that issue to the United Nations Security Council.

The international debate surrounding Iran's nuclear weapons program centers on one question: Is Iran trying to build a nuclear bomb? 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.

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.

"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.  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 weapons state.  So there is that thinking," according to Ambassador Graham.

The Nuclear Timeline 

Experts are divided as to exactly when Iran will be able to get the scientific capability to build nuclear bombs. Sammy Salama is a Middle East expert with the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

"The most alarmist estimates suggest that in a matter of months and perhaps up to two years, Iran will be quote-unquote 'at the point of no return' in which they will acquire specific scientific expertise and perhaps fissile material to manufacture nuclear weapons. However, most estimates indicate that it will probably take a decade for Iran to be at that level in which they can actually have sufficient scientific expertise and sufficient material to go ahead and assemble nuclear warheads," says Sammy Salama. 

While experts may disagree on when Iran will have nuclear weapons, they do agree that Tehran is approaching the point where it can produce -- on a large scale -- enriched uranium, which can be used for civilian nuclear plants as well as building a nuclear bomb.

For years, the International Atomic Energy Agency has been warning Iran to end its plans to enrich uranium -- but to no avail.  Last month, Tehran re-opened its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. That forced the I.A.E.A. to refer Iran's case to the United Nations Security Council. That referral will officially take place after the I.A.E.A. meets March 6th.

In addition to the I.A.E.A., the European Union has been engaged in talks with Iran -- but those negotiations have also made little progress.

A Russian Proposal

While diplomatic efforts seem stymied, experts say Russia has come up with a proposal that could work. David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and International Security, explains the Russian idea.

"Which is that Iran could operate the uranium conversion facility to make what is called uranium hexafluoride -- using natural uranium, not usable at all in nuclear weapons.  And that material would then be sent to Russia and enriched there.  And then that enriched uranium would be sent back to Iran for use in its power reactors.  And in that, Iran would give up building an enrichment plant," says David Albright.

For his part, Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, an independent research organization, says the Russian proposal could be -- in his words -- the last way out for everybody.

According to Daryl Kimball, "This might be one way in which the Iranians preserve their so-called right to peaceful nuclear activities, including the enrichment of uranium for energy purposes, through a firm agreement with the Russians on enrichment.  And it would also avoid allowing the Iranians to have, within their territory, all of the necessary capabilities to produce materials for nuclear weapons."

The talks between Russia and Iran are continuing, but up until now, there have been no breakthroughs. Experts say referring Iran's nuclear file to the U.N. Security Council will certainly increase the pressure on Iran.

But experts -- including Daryl Kimball -- don't believe the Security Council will discuss any meaningful sanctions.

"I don't think that China and Russia, at the moment, are going to support or even allow a decision to impose meaningful political or economic sanctions against Iran to go through.  And that's not necessarily because Russia and China have a strong economic relationship with Iran, but because they fear, I believe, the rapid escalation of this crisis," says Daryl Kimball.

But David Albright, from the Institute for Science and International Security, says countries could impose their own sanctions unilaterally, "European countries may cut back business and it wouldn't even be government policies - it would just be businesses sizing up the situation and looking at the risk.  Two Swiss banks [UBS and Credit Suisse] have already announced they are not going to do further business with Iran.  So I think you'll see, in effect, some sanctions imposed on Iran because individual companies will make decisions that further business is not in their economic interest."

Many experts agree that diplomatic efforts must continue.  They say the United Nations, the I.A.E.A. and the European Union must redouble their efforts to prevent this crisis from spinning out of control and bringing about unforeseen consequences for everyone concerned.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.