A meeting of the board in Vienna was adjourned yesterday while officials went ahead with informal talks on a planned IAEA resolution on Iran.
IAEA chief el-Baradei told reporters that the negotiations were "hard." Diplomats say the United States is pushing for a tougher resolution than one backed by European states and Russia.
A resolution proposed by Germany, France, and Britain -- the EU trio that has been talking directly with Tehran -- reportedly calls for the IAEA to make a "definitive determination" in November on Iran's nuclear program. After two years of investigations, the IAEA has yet to say definitely whether Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
However, the United States wants the IAEA resolution to set a tighter deadline and to incorporate a "trigger mechanism" under which the UN Security Council could impose sanctions if Iran failed to suspend uranium enrichment and take other measures.
But the Europeans and Americans are in a delicate position. Analyst Alex Vatanka of Jane's military publishing group in London says it is unclear what their options would be if Iran rejected the planned deadlines to meet Western demands.
"What can the Europeans do after that? I mean, they could agree with the Americans to take [Iran] to the Security Council, but the Russians [a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council] are pretty clear-cut about this; they are not going to support that kind of line. So taking the matter to the UN Security Council actually does not provide much hope for resolving this [problem]," Vatanka said.
Should the UN route fail, some experts say the United States could consider military measures against Iran, even as U.S. officials have dismissed that option.
Vatanka said that option is also complicated by the present situation in neighboring Iraq, where he said the difficulties in justifying the U.S.-led invasion are "fresh in people's minds."
To gain international backing, Vatanka said, an attack on Iran would need to be supported by hard evidence of a nuclear program. And that evidence is missing.
Iran, for its part, maintains it has a right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it has signed, to carry on a full nuclear-fuel-cycle program.
Meanwhile, Vatanka said, the wrangle over Iran's alleged weapons program is already having an international impact: "It will have implications for the way a lot of states will start viewing their relations with Europe and the United States. I mean, nonaligned states have already come out and said they would like to see this case closed in Vienna, and put aside."
But at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, research director Shahram Chubin put the debate on a different plane.
Chubin said the real issue is whether Iran should have access to the full nuclear fuel cycle. He said that what both the United States and the IAEA are basically saying is that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) should be rewritten: "The main aim [of that idea] is that those countries which have not yet got uranium enrichment, should give up that right, and there should be either alternative sources of enrichment internationally, whether these be multilateral centers like [the IAEA's] el-Baradei sees, or guarantees of enrichment by outside countries to non-enrichment countries."
In other words, a line would be drawn between those countries that already have uranium-enrichment capabilities and those that do not.
Chubin said that when the NPT was created, the framers considered "peaceful uses" of nuclear energy to be separate from military capability. But he said the line between the two, as the Iran case shows, has blurred.
"But within the treaty, as long as you say it is for peaceful purposes, you can get very, very close to a weapons program. And then you can jump out of the treaty if you want to, and people are more scared now that countries like Iran will insist that their program is peaceful, peaceful, peaceful, but will get enough fissile material that a decision to go towards a weapons program would be very tiny, you would just have to say, 'I'm leaving the treaty because of overwhelming national interest, I've got enough fissile materials, I'm going to make bombs,'" Chubin said.