The door remains slightly open for a possible negotiated ending to the high-stakes diplomatic standoff between Iran, over its nuclear ambitions, and the leading members of both the world nuclear club and the UN Security Council the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China and Germany.

A face-saving formula was devised at a one-day meeting in London last Monday at which the six countries told Iran that it should stop its uranium enrichment programme but avoided any reference to referring the matter to the UN Security Council which could impose sanctions on Tehran.

In turn, the European participants called for an emergency meeting of the UN's nuclear watchdog body to consider Iran's breaking of international seals at its nuclear research facilities.

The 35-nation International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will meet on February 2, much earlier than originally scheduled

The expectation here is that the next few weeks will give more time for back-room negotiations in the run-up to the IAEA meeting.

The Iranian position, especially after its bellicose statements against Israel which have angered the Western world and probably embarrassed some Arab states, does not have much regional support.

Actually Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal has called in a BBC interview for a nuclear-free zone in the Arabian Gulf region, a surprising departure from the long-held Egyptian demand for a nuclear-free zone in the entire Middle East.

Iran's pursuit of nuclear energy to produce electricity is viewed by some as "absurd" since the country, the world's fourth largest exporter of crude oil, has an estimated 10 per cent of the world's oil reserves.

Stephanie S. Cooke, a former editor of Nucleonics Week and who is now writing a book on the history of the nuclear enterprise since 1946, says this Iranian approach is the "most expensive method of boiling water that man has ever invented, requiring a massive, dangerous and energy draining infrastructure to keep it going".

Regardless, the post-Shah Iranian regime remains troubled by its political isolation and vulnerability, as was the case during the eight-year war with neighbouring Iraq. Of late, the presence of two new nuclear powers in close proximity to its borders, Pakistan and India, has contributed to its continued jitters and bellicosity.

This was clearly demonstrated in the Iranian statements that the US has more to lose should Iran be attacked since it can withhold its oil exports, upsetting the oil markets and driving prices much higher.

Iranian concern

The other Iranian concern is Israel's nuclear arsenal, an issue that the West has sidetracked since the 1970s, especially Israel's unabashed refusal to adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has warned recently that "under no circumstances can Israel allow someone with hostile intentions against us to have control over weapons of mass destruction that can endanger our existence".

The Iranians recall too well how Israeli fighters demolished Iraq's nuclear reactor more than three decades ago and there has been talk that Israel may do the same with Iran's nuclear facilities.

Moreover, the presence of American troops across Iran's borders, in Iraq and Afghanistan, is another unsettling factor for the Iranians.

The Bush administration does not have many options here. After all its hands are tied in the unpopular war in Iraq.

More significantly, President Bush is facing many serious domestic problems which are bound to affect the standing of his Republican Party in the upcoming mid-term national elections.

Under the circumstances, its only recourse remains the diplomatic option provided by Russian President Vladimir Putin who maintained that Iran had not rejected a Russian offer to enrich uranium for its nuclear programme, thus making it harder for Iran to make nuclear weapons.

But in the long-run, the issue of nuclear proliferation needs to be seriously visited by all concerned or else the non-proliferation regime has been a failure. This was glaringly demonstrated by North Korea who withdrew from the treaty scot free and meantime reportedly managed to develop its own nuclear weapons.

George Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist.