VIENNA -- The diplomatic showdown over Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions could escalate into a confrontation that changes the political dynamic of the Middle East and further destabilizes the region, Western diplomats, officials, and analysts say.
In addition to concerns that Tehran has already acquired sufficient know-how to go nuclear in a few years, there are also growing worries about a potential military confrontation with Israel, and that Iran could try to destabilize neighboring Iraq.
Iran said yesterday that it had successfully tested what it called a ''strategic missile" and delivered it to its armed forces. Earlier last week, Tehran defiantly announced it had begun converting uranium into gas, a key step in developing nuclear weapons, just the latest in a series of incidents that appear to be putting Tehran on a collision course with Washington and key European allies.
Those announcements were made just days after the International Atomic Energy Agency called on Iran to cease all activities related to uranium enrichment, and made it increasingly likely that Tehran could be hauled before the UN Security Council for violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The IAEA will meet in November to decide the matter.
''The clock is ticking down" on Iran, a senior Western diplomat in Vienna said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog, has been investigating Iran's nuclear program for nearly two years and has turned up a lot of suspicious activity, including a proven ability to enrich uranium and an emerging infrastructure that could produce large quantities of bomb-grade material. It has not, however, found a ''smoking gun" proving a weapons program.
Regardless of whether Iran intends to build nuclear weapons, there is a growing sense of urgency among the United States and major European allies that if unchecked Tehran's ability and desire to enrich uranium has put it in a position to go nuclear, should it choose to do so, in the near future. Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful and for civilian purposes.
The specter of a nuclear-armed Iran, which could threaten Israel, set off a dangerous arms race, and further destabilize the Middle East, is something the United States and its allies are furiously seeking to prevent.
But as the issue appears to race toward a confrontation, there are also growing fears that should the Security Council eventually impose sanctions, an increasingly isolated Iran may pull out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as North Korea did last year, and pursue a weapons program unfettered. Officials have voiced concerns that Iran might attempt to further subvert the situation in neighboring Iraq by influencing Shi'ite Muslims there, or that Israel may try to take out Tehran's nuclear facilities in a military strike -- with unpredictable consequences.
''In the November IAEA meeting, there will be real stakes involved," another senior Western official in Vienna said, referring to the meeting at which the UN nuclear watchdog will decide whether to report Iran to the Security Council.
''But this has become so much bigger than the IAEA," the official added, on condition of anonymity. ''It goes to the whole geopolitics of the Middle East and to the chronic insecurity of the region."
Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East assert that the international community follows a double standard in the region, allowing Israel to maintain an undeclared atomic arsenal while cracking down on states like Iran that are only suspected of harboring nuclear ambitions. Analysts estimate that Israel has 100 to 200 atomic weapons, although the country neither admits nor denies it has such arms.
Proponents of Israel's weapons program say it needs a nuclear monopoly in the region, where many countries deny its right to exist.
Israel has made it clear that it will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran and has strongly hinted that it may use military strikes to eliminate nuclear sites there should diplomacy fail. Israel plans to buy about 5,000 US-made smart bombs, including 500 one-ton bunker-busters that can penetrate 6-foot-thick concrete walls, according to recent press reports.
Just days after word of Israel's impending arms purchase, Iran's Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani announced his country's successful missile test and said Tehran was ''ready to confront all regional and extraregional threats," the Associated Press reported, citing a report on Iran's state-run radio station. It is unclear whether the new missile is an updated version of Iran's Shahab-3 rocket.
Moreover, CIA and US military intelligence have simulated a US strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, Newsweek reported, citing defense sources, but were unhappy with the war game's outcome because they could not prevent the conflict from escalating.
Analysts warn it would be difficult to hit Iran's nuclear sites with absolute confidence, since they are in hardened facilities and the locations of all of them are not known.
''You could have failed to decisively set back the program but at the same time prompt Iran to take a number of steps in retaliation, including to destabilize the situation in Iraq," Robert Einhorn, who served as the Clinton administration's assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation, told reporters in Vienna in a conference call.
Iran has also said it would consider pulling out of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty should the Security Council impose sanctions. Such a move would turn the country into an international pariah.
But while Iran would stand to lose a lot in terms of trade and investment if it withdrew from the treaty, such a defiant move could boost Tehran's prestige in the region. ''If Iran dropped out of the NPT, you would have at least 30 countries, mostly in the Middle East, cheering them on," the senior Western official in Vienna said.
The United States has been pushing hard to get Iran hauled before the Security Council, which could impose sanctions for violating the treaty. Britain, France, and Germany, however, have been attempting to negotiate with Iran to defuse the crisis.
Last October, the foreign ministers of the three European countries traveled to Tehran and persuaded the nation to agree to suspend uranium enrichment in exchange for trade and investment incentives. Iran angered the Europeans when it announced over the summer that it was resuming activities related to enrichment.
Over the past several weeks, Britain, Germany, and France have been scrambling to get Iran to resume its freeze on enrichment activities, but diplomats say the deal appears to have broken down.