Let's start with a simple proposition: no one wants Iran to have the Bomb. The country doesn't actually possess nukes yet, but much of the world suspects that it is hell-bent on building them under the cover of its nuclear-energy program--and the loose-cannon bluster of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad only reinforces that conviction. That's why diplomats and nuclear watchdogs in the U.S., Europe and other parts of the world have spent so much time trying to stop Iran's nuclear program in its tracks.
So far, however, the joint diplomatic offensive hasn't produced much in the way of results. The Bush Administration's National Security Strategy, issued this month, names Iran the most challenging "single country" to U.S. interests, leaving open the possibility of pre-emptive strikes against Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. and Europe have persuaded Russia and China to join them in reporting Iran's failure to cooperate with international demands to the U.N. Security Council, but both countries oppose punitive action such as economic sanctions. The U.S. spent last week pushing the five permanent members of the Security Council to sign on to a British-drafted statement urging Iran to open its books and lab doors to intrusive international inspections. But the plan met resistance from Russia, which wants to avoid Security Council involvement altogether. "It's a fundamental problem," says a senior U.S. official. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov but made little headway. She plans to visit Berlin, Paris and Britain this week in an effort to hammer out a statement that can win unanimous backing in the Security Council. Meanwhile, Tehran has sped up research work on the uranium enrichment that lies at the heart of the dispute. Diplomats who have been briefed on Iran's program by international inspectors say the country has developed the ability to enrich uranium, the first step on the pathway to the Bomb. "They're progressing much faster than we thought they would," says a knowledgeable U.S. official. "They seem to know what they're doing."
There lies the deadlock. The U.S. and Iran have shown a faint willingness to lower the temperature, by agreeing to hold talks over Iranian interference in Iraq. But it's unclear whether Tehran hopes to use the talks over Iraq as a way to open the subject of nukes--or to distract the West's attention from it. Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, told TIME that the regime may be open to compromise on the nuclear issue. "If there is a proposal that the rights of Iran can be secured to some extent for the present time and the other rights through negotiations, we are open to that." Yet the Bush Administration doesn't expect the Iraq discussions will lead to a breakthrough on the nuclear front. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley dismisses Iran's overture as "simply a device by the Iranians to divert pressure that they are feeling in New York."