On Thursday, following two weeks of negotiations that failed to produce an agreement between France, Britain, China, the United States and Russia -- the five veto-holding members of the U.N. Security Council -- ambassadors traded phone calls hoping to finalize a joint council statement urging the Islamic republic to halt its fuel enrichment activities.
The deadlock is pitting France and Britain supported by the United States against Russia and China.
Russian and Chinese officials have refused to sign a draft statement written by the Europeans. They fear Security Council involvement could escalate to economic sanctions against Iran and to possible military action. The two countries instead have proposed sending the issue back to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the agency that referred Iran to the council in early March.
"The draft includes points that effectively lay the groundwork for sanctions against Iran," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday. "We will hardly be able to support this version."
Both Moscow and Beijing have strong economic ties to Iran, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' third largest oil producer and a growing market for Russian goods. Neither wants to see a crisis in the region that could disrupt oil production or economic stability.
The crisis also is highlighting growing concerns that the West's ability to reign in Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the nuclear issue is weakening -- "We will not bend to a few countries' threats," the hard-line leader has said.
"The International Atomic Energy Agency's decision to report Iran to the Security Council places Washington and its allies on a collision course with Tehran," Bennett Ramberg, a former State Department official, wrote in an opinion in the Christian Science Monitor earlier in March. "Unless the disputants come up with a new strategy... current diplomacy offers little wiggle room."
Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said European and American efforts may be backfiring.
"Everybody hoped and perceived that by just saying Security Council that would provoke enough fears in Iranians that they would suspend the program. Now that's not happening, nobody's sure what to do."
Takeyh proposes offering Iran security and economic incentives rather than threatening economic sanctions.
"While such incentives would never tempt Iran's intemperate president, they may succeed in peeling away important elements of the regime as well as the Iranian population from the cause of nuclear arms," Takeyh wrote in a March 13 Christian Science Monitor opinion.
Testifying before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations earlier in March, Washington Institute for Near East Policy Deputy Director Patrick Lawson argued against economic incentives and instead suggested concentrating on Iran's security needs.
"Since Iran is flush with oil income that has swelled its foreign exchange reserves to over $30 billion, Tehran has dismissed [past European] offers," he said.
"A better approach is to concentrate on security measures, to counter the argument that Iran needs nuclear weapons because it has real security needs. There are many confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs) and arms control measures which would provide gains for both Iran and the West," Lawson argued.
The Security Council has been forced to cancel an upcoming meeting of its full 15-member body until the top seats work out a deal.
If talks between the five countries break down, Britain and France could ditch the proposed statement and draft a Security Council resolution, a move that would require approval from all 15 members and which would force Russia and China to abstain from the vote or use their veto power.