Iran is almost certain not to heed a UN call for it to stop nuclear-fuel work by tomorrow, setting the stage for a showdown on what the US says is a secret Iranian drive to make atom bombs.
"New York is the key now," a senior European diplomat said, referring to a three-day UN summit starting on Sept. 14 where hardline Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to present new proposals to assure the international community that his country is not making nuclear weapons.
Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said last week in Vienna that Iran would not give up its right under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to make nuclear fuel.
Tomorrow's deadline was set by the UN watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for Iran to stop work on making atomic power reactor fuel that could also be used to make weapons.
IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei will be filing a report on that date to the agency's 35-nation board of governors on Iranian compliance.
The resumption this month of uranium fuel conversion work, which Iran had broken off last November to start talks with the EU on guaranteeing a peaceful nuclear program, has scuttled negotiations and could lead to Iran being brought before the UN Security Council for possible sanctions when the board meets on Sept. 19 in Vienna.
The US had been pushing for an emergency board meeting soon after the report but that was opposed by Russia as well as non-aligned member states of the board, diplomats said.
Russia wants to give bilateral talks at the summit in New York a chance, with planned meetings of Ahmadinejad with Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, according to diplomats.
Non-proliferation analyst Gary Samore, an arms-control expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the Iranians are hoping to split the IAEA board with their proposals, which will call for countries beyond EU negotiators Britain, France and Germany to get involved in the talks.
The Iranians calculate that they have support from Russia, which is building Iran's first nuclear power plant; from China, which is a major buyer of its oil; and from states like Brazil, which want the principle of the right of individual nations to peaceful nuclear technology to be defended, Samore said.
But Samore said the EU negotiating trio was "standing strong" on this issue.
The US, Europe and allies like Japan feel they have enough votes on the IAEA board to push through referral to the Security Council if Iran persists in nuclear fuel work, Samore said.
French non-proliferation analyst Francois Heisbourg said Iran may be making a miscalculation, as both Russia and China could be less willing to back it on this issue than Tehran thinks.
"Russia does not want to have another nuclear power in its region," Heisbourg said.
He added that "the Chinese do not think that the collapse of the non-proliferation regime is good. Both North Korea and Iran having nuclear weapons would be too much for them."
And Heisbourg said that countries like Brazil, which are currently enriching uranium for fuel, "are not interested in having that right diminished by Iran if people come to the conclusion that enrichment is dangerous."
Heisbourg said that what some have called "Iran's other nuclear weapon," its role as a major oil-producing country or drastic action such as blocking the Strait of Hormuz through which major oil traffic passes, could be hard to use because "Iran needs people to buy its oil." It also doesn't want to incite Western military retaliation.