The U.S. and its Western allies face an unpalatable choice over Iran at a key U.N. atomic agency meeting Thursday.
They can defy Russia and China with a demand that the Islamic Republic start answering questions on its alleged secret nuclear arms program or face renewed referral to the U.N. Security Council. Or they can settle for a milder rebuke of Tehran that leaves the big powers formally speaking with one voice but leaves the world's hands tied in investigating the suspicions about Iran.
Both ways, the U.S., Britain, France and Germany stand to lose as they head into the opening session of the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation board meeting.
If they push for a tough resolution that sets a time frame for Iran to cooperate with the IAEA's probe, then Russia and China are likely to vote against it. That may doom further attempts to speak with one Security Council voice at any future negotiations with Iran over its nuclear defiance _ and increase Sino-Russian resistance against new U.N. Security Council sanctions on Tehran.
Going too far the other way keeps the facade of unity, by allowing Moscow and Beijing to endorse a weakly worded resolution with no deadline for Iran's cooperation and no warnings of penalties if it doesn't. But it once again stalls attempts to probe the allegations and signals Iran that it can thumb its nose at the world community.
The big power split along East-West lines is not new _ but is becoming more of a problem for Washington and its allies as Tehran advances in enriching uranium, which can be used for making weapons as well as fueling reactors.
Tehran denies hiding a weapons program and insists its enrichment activities are meant only as an energy source. But as Iran gets closer to bomb-making ability, Israel may opt to strike militarily rather than take the chance that its arch foe will possess nuclear weapons.
Israeli government officials have increased warnings that such a strike is being contemplated, and the U.S. also has refused to take that option off the table.
Israeli officials have suggested they could accept crippling Iran sanctions as an alternative to force. But despite four rounds of economic sanctions, the United Nations is being held back from tougher measures by Russia and China, both of them veto-wielding Security Council members and bound to Iran by strategic and economic interests. They've offered no sign of a change in posture since President Barack Obama's meetings Saturday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao.
The West had hoped that an unprecedented detailing of Iran' alleged secret weapons work contained in a restricted Nov. 8 IAEA report could sway Moscow and Beijing. For the first time, the agency said Iran was suspected of clandestine work that is "specific to nuclear weapons."
Both Moscow and Beijing pressured IAEA chief Yukiya Amano not to publish that information. After Amano ignored them, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quoted as saying that the IAEA report "contains nothing new" and provides no further evidence that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons. He also repeated Russia's opposition to any new U.N. sanctions. Beijing has been less unequivocally opposed to tough measures but tends to follow Moscow's lead.
Such support has clearly strengthened Tehran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says IAEA fears are "absurd" accusations fabricated by Washington. On Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said his country was drawing up an in-depth technical response to show the IAEA report is wrong.
The lack of progress on Iran also has created domestic fallout for Obama, with Republican presidential hopefuls seizing on it as proof that the U.S. president is weak on foreign policy.
Western officials sounded a tough line ahead of the IAEA meeting.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington is "looking for strong action" from the board, as part of "ways to increase the pressure on Iran, be they multilateral or unilateral."
"The result that we're looking for is one that demonstrates to Iran very clearly and unequivocally ... the international community's resolve as well as its very serious concerns about Iran's nuclear program."
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said that the board "must adopt a very firm resolution demanding Iran to finally, in the briefest time possible, make known its activities, past and present, regarding a military program, allowing IAEA inspectors to work without restriction."
Diplomats speaking on background in Vienna, however, depict a Western stance that is less clear.
One senior Western diplomat suggested the West was ready to risk further strains with Russia and China, telling The Associated Press that a strong resolution with priorities outlined by Juppe was preferable to a weak text that Russia and China can live with.
Others, however, emphasized maintaining six-power unity _ even at the risk of watering down any text.
With agreement not in sight late Wednesday, Western officials floated another option.
They said the U.S. France and Britain _ the three Western permanent Security Council members _ might opt to skip any push for IAEA board action and turn directly to the Security Council for action on the Iran report.
Russia and China would likely veto new sanctions. But the issue would be at least in front of the council, negating any need for IAEA referral to that body.
The diplomats and officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks.
Matthew Lee in Washington, Ali Akhbar Dareini in Tehran, Cassandra Vinograd in London, Angela Charlton and Elaine Ganley in Paris and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.
George Jahn can be contacted at http://twitter.com/GeorgeJahn