Iran's decision to press ahead with its nuclear program puts European leaders in a tough spot: They are trying to stop Tehran from doing something that is technically not illegal.
The seals that Tehran ordered broken Wednesday were installed by United Nations inspectors as part of a voluntary agreement between Iran and the European powers last November. The Iranians now say they have changed their minds because they are frustrated by the pace of negotiations over the scope of their nuclear ambitions. The West, in turn, fears that Iran's real intention is to develop nuclear weaponry.
As a result, European diplomats here are scrambling to find ways to pressure Tehran into resuming the suspension of a nuclear program that is recognized by the International Atomic Energy Agency as following the rules.
This ongoing legalistic battle masks more fundamental questions: Does Iran, the world's fourth-largest oil exporter, really need nuclear power plants? What are Iran's true intentions? And how effective is the UN system in monitoring the country's nuclear program?
"The legal case is somewhat thin against Iran," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that researches nuclear issues.
Before the emergency meeting here on Tuesday, European leaders threatened to take Iran before the United Nations Security Council. But diplomats now say this is not on the table at the talks here.
Kimball believes that Britain, Germany and France, the three countries leading a European effort to circumscribe Iran's nuclear program, have not carried through on their Security Council threats because they are not sure that they would win.
It is widely recognized that Iran did violate international law by hiding its nuclear program for 18 years. But the program was discovered in 2002 and Iran has since cooperated with United Nations inspectors, who have installed cameras in their facilities and make regular visits and reports.
"Some might ask, why are you taking this to the Security Council now? This was discovered three years ago and they've taken corrective action since then," said a Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition that she not be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The difficulties of addressing nuclear questions through the UN system have been on full display here during the emergency meetings called by Britain, France and Germany.
For the second day on Wednesday, diplomats were unable to reach consensus on a resolution addressing the Iranian situation, and the UN agency announced that a meeting of its board of governors had been canceled.
The major fault line is between developing countries that are wary of any action that impinges on their rights to peaceful nuclear programs and Western countries, many of which have both military and civil nuclear capacity and are afraid of the technology spreading.
Iran has positioned itself as a champion of the developing world, capable of standing up to Europe and the United States. When Iran's chief delegate at the IAEA meeting, Cyrus Nasseri, addressed the agency's governing board Tuesday, he started with a jab at the United States, pointing out that the meeting was taking place on the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, and that it was the "most absurd manifestation of irony" that the only country to use atomic weapons "has now assumed the role of the prime preacher in the nuclear field while ever expanding its nuclear weapons capability."
Iran has support among some developing countries that are sympathetic to the argument that nuclear technology is not the exclusive right of wealthier countries. The Malaysian representative at the meeting, Rajmah Hussain, read a statement on behalf of the Nonaligned Movement, which includes such countries as Indonesia, India and South Africa, saying that nuclear technology issues "should be addressed in a balanced and nondiscriminatory manner."
Rajmah added that all countries had a "basic and inalienable right" to develop atomic energy for peaceful purposes.
Does Iran need the nuclear electricity generating capacity it is so forcefully seeking to acquire? The country last year produced and exported an average of 4.09 million barrels of oil a day. Given current reserves estimated in January by the Oil & Gas Journal, a trade publication, at 125.8 billion barrels, this would leave the country with slightly more than 80 years of production.
In addition, Iran's natural gas reserves are estimated to last 200 years at current production levels. Iran argues that a growing population and economy are causing its consumption rates to increase, therefore leaving it with progressively less oil to export.
"With the current trend of development in Iran it will not be long before we will have to utilize all our fossil fuel resources for domestic purposes," Nasseri said.
He added that Iran wanted to sell its uranium byproducts on the international market, describing nuclear fuel as the "alternative for the future not only for Iran but for the whole world." Kimball of the Arms Control Association believes Iran's motives are more complex than that.
"For Iran, nuclear technology is a source of national pride and a demonstration of its political and technological independence from its former colonial masters," he said. "This is much more complicated than a simple economic and energy calculation," he said.