By Li Guofu
After numerous twists and turns Iran's nuclear program is once again taking center stage in the global political arena.
Since Iran resumed operations at its uranium conversion plant in Isfahan in August last year, relations between Iran and the European Union have suffered major setbacks, with both sides trying to find a diplomatic solution.
Strained relations started to improve at the end of the year when the two sides agreed to hold preliminary meetings on breaking the deadlock.
But Iran, shrugging off repeated warnings from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), removed United Nations seals on its nuclear facilities on January 10, ready to resume enriching uranium.
The United States and the EU have long accused Iran of engaging in a nuclear weapons program and not using technology purely for peaceful purposes.
As material acquired through enriching uranium can be used both for peaceful purposes and for nuclear weapons, they argue, the only way to "guarantee" Iran cannot produce nuclear weapons is to ban Teheran from engaging in any uranium enrichment.
Representatives of Britain, France and Germany that are negotiating for a diplomatic solution have maintained that the resumption of enrichment demonstrates Iran's lack of sincerity. The European nations and the United States insisted the matter be reported to the United Nations Security Council and favour imposing sanctions.
The United States' stance has hardened. Although Washington has reiterated time and again that the stand-off should be resolved through diplomatic channels, high-ranking government officials are talking about the possibility of using force to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities.
Britain, France, China, Russia, the United States the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany held negotiations in Britain in the middle and at the end of January. They agreed during the second round of talks that the matter should be reported to the UN Security Council.
Hot on the heels of the six-party talks, the IAEA's Special Board of Governors passed a draft resolution at its meeting on February 4 to report Teheran to the UN Security Council. China voted for the resolution.
The IAEA, in line with the resolution, will report the nuclear program deadlock to the UN Security Council and keep the body updated, but not submit it to the council. The key to resolving the matter is still in the hands of the IAEA.
China's support is consistent with its long-standing position on the Iranian nuclear program. Beijing has consistently pressed for the settlement of the question through negotiations.
The "yes" vote from China at the IAEA Special Board of Governors meeting was granted because delegates believe the passage of the draft resolution will facilitate the breaking of the deadlock and will ease tension.
Ambassador Wu Hailong, China's representative to the UN organizations in Vienna, said all parties concerned should leave no stones unturned in the search for a diplomatic solution even though negotiations have run into difficulties.
As a result, China appeals to all sides to remain calm and exercise self-restraint in order to avoid action that would make matters worse.
China also urges that all parties act as astute judges of the situation and demonstrate as much flexibility as possible so the matter can be properly resolved through negotiations.
Beijing will continue to play its unique role in resolving the nuclear deadlock.
Iran has strongly opposed the IAEA resolution, claiming the Western countries, with ulterior political motives, are trying to rob Iran of its legitimate rights.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered an end to voluntary co-operation with the IAEA, the resumption of nuclear activities and a halt to implementing the Additional Protocol of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
The Iranian presidential order makes it clear Iran will no longer allow inspections of its nuclear facilities to be conducted by international personnel.
The tough stance of the Iranian Government has made the US and EU more determined to submit Iran's nuclear bid to the UN Security Council.
Mohammed ElBaradei, director-general of the IAEA, is expected to submit an evaluation report to the IAEA Board of Governors on March 6, giving his assessment of Teheran's nuclear program.
The report will have a great influence on whether the matter is submitted to the UN Security Council or not.
Although the conclusions of the director-general's report are not yet known, ElBaradei has expressed grave concern about the direction in which the nuclear deadlock is going.
He made it clear that the IAEA is unable to verify the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear activities despite three years of thorough investigations conducted by his agency.
The three weeks between now and March 6, when the IAEA Board of Governors meetings will be convened, are vitally important.
We are at a crucial crossroads. It is generally believed that if Iran does not budge, it is likely the Security Council will step in.
Once the IAEA decides to submit the matter to the UN Security Council, it is possible sanctions against Iran may be introduced.
The situation could escalate bringing consequences no one wants to see.
Strong measures against Iran, including sanctions, would inevitably harm the interests of all parties involved. Taking this into account, the possibility of a positive solution should not be ruled out.
The author is a senior research fellow and director of the Center for Middle East Studies under the China Institute of International Studies.
(China Daily February 16, 2006)