Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program remains a key problem for the international community.

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.

Sammy Salama, an expert on Iran with the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, says the international debate centers on Iran's intentions.

"While the Iranians claim that they have no interest in nuclear weapons, that they are mainly interested in nuclear technology, obviously there is a lot of suspicion in the West that Iran is really ultimately seeking to achieve a nuclear weapons program that will allow it to build nuclear warheads," said Mr. Salama.

Experts agree that Iran has been developing a capacity to enrich uranium that would eventually allow it to manufacture nuclear weapons. But Mr. Salama says analysts are careful when answering the question how long will it take Iran to build such a weapon.

"There are a lot of alarmist views," he continued. "For example, many people would say that Iran is within months of getting this or perhaps a year. Many others will say it's really more like a decade, because they have yet to achieve a technological mastery of various processes needed for the manufacture of nuclear weapons."

For the past several years, three European countries - Britain, France and Germany - have been negotiating with Iran. Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, an independent research organization, describes what the group known as the "European Union Three" has been trying to achieve.

"What the European Union has tried to do, since the fall of 2003, is they have tried to persuade Iran to enter into negotiations to voluntarily suspend some of its nuclear activities, specifically the uranium enrichment program, in exchange for wider access to European markets, wider interaction and engagement with the international community," he explained. "Iran has rejected the 'European Union three' proposals. With the election of a harder line government this summer, Iran seems to be even more intent on exercising what it claims is its right under article four of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to pursue a 'peaceful' quote-unquote nuclear energy program."

Mr. Kimball says the talks have not succeeded so far and in August, Iran resumed uranium conversion - that is converting uranium ore into gas. That is the first step in a process that could lead Tehran to enrich uranium either for peaceful purposes or to build a bomb.

Following Iran's decision to resume uranium conversion, the International Atomic Energy Agency in September judged Tehran to be in non-compliance with the safeguards agreements it has with the IAEA. Mr. Kimball says the IAEA could refer the issue to the United Nations Security Council.

"That is something that Iran does not want to see happen," added Mr. Kimball. "It is also something that many of the Security Council members don't want to see happen because it would create a very tough choice for many of them. Because if the Security Council is presented with this issue, there is the possibility that it will be asked or it will be proposed, that there should be economic sanctions against Iran, until it comes to full compliance and answers all questions that the IAEA has. And because Iran is a huge oil producer and exporter, that could create some heartache for many of the countries that depend on Iranian oil."

In an effort to make sure that Iran produces nuclear power only for peaceful purposes, Russia has proposed a compromise.

"The Russian proposal is quite simple: Iran will keep its uranium conversion capability. This way they can save face and don't have to seem in front of their population like they are losing face or they are compromising," Sammy Salama from the Monterey Institute of International Studies explained. "But at the same time, Iran will not do any enrichment inside Iran, all uranium gas, the UF 6 gas, will actually be sent to Russia for enrichment. So Russia will control the enrichment process. This way it will guarantee that the gas is enriched only to two or four percent enrichment level, which is only suitable for fueling and refueling nuclear reactors."

Mr. Salama says if Iran accepts that offer, it could defuse the whole situation. But initial Iranian reaction has been lukewarm.

The three European countries are expected to resume their talks with Iran in January. Experts say both sides have to show a willingness to compromise in order to make sure that the issue doesn't escalate into a major crisis.