A U.S.-led drive for tougher sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme is being hampered by differences among world powers and suspicions that Washington could use the failure of sanctions to justify military strikes.
The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, have agreed to draft a new resolution on imposing wider financial, trade and visa curbs to increase pressure on Tehran to stop enriching uranium.
But Russia and China have long taken a less hawkish approach than that adopted by the United States and largely backed by Britain and France. Differences have also emerged between Germany, France and Britain over how fast to proceed.
The United States has said military action should not be excluded if Iran does not halt enrichment, a process the West fears will yield atom bombs. Iran, a major oil exporter, says its work is intended only to produce electricity.
Russia and China's concerns have been partly driven by commercial ties. Now debate over a separate round of European Union trade sanctions has exposed schisms among major EU countries, political analysts say.
"We're in a bit of a mess. The Americans have shifted the debate away from nuclear proliferation and the Europeans don't know how to deal with that," said Ali Ansari, director of the Institute of Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
Washington now lists Iran's nuclear activity as just one of many grievances, alongside accusations that Tehran is funding Shia militant groups in Iraq.
Some political analysts suggest Washington could seek to use any failure to impose harsher sanctions, which would expand on two batches of limited measures adopted within the past year, to strengthen its case for military strikes against Iran.
"Continental European reluctance for more sanctions in Iran is partly to do with commercial interests but also related to concern that they are being led down an Iraq-like path, whereby failed sanctions are used to justify military action by the U.S.," said Dan Plesch, international affairs expert at London's School of Oriental and African studies.
"There's a growing sense the White House is determined to take military action and thus the serious concern about what the broader implications (of this sanctions process) might be."
This could also complicate Britain's position. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is struggling with poor poll ratings and wants to put the unpopular Iraq war behind him.
Support for his predecessor, Tony Blair, sank after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which Britain took part in.
"Brown doesn't want to be Blair...he wants to be moving away from Iraq. One of the striking things is how quiet Brown has been about Iran," said Ansari.
Pressure is set to increase after reports by the U.N. nuclear watchdog and the EU's top diplomat in mid-month on whether Iran has answered questions about past, secret nuclear work and whether there are any signs Iran might halt enrichment.
Diplomats said Iran seems to have been cooperative with U.N. inspectors in talks since August. Whether this has been enough to "close the file" on any key issues remains unclear.
Iran has repeated to all listeners it will not stop enrichment, which the West says Iran does not need for civilian energy as the world's fourth largest oil exporter.
A clear factor giving Germany -- and Italy and Spain -- pause about broadening sanctions is business dealings.
Europe-wide sanctions are important because America has largely cut off all trade with Iran already. According to the European Commission, 27.8 percent of Iran's 2006 trade was with the EU, making it the country's biggest trading partner.
"The real sticks are being held by the Europeans in terms of economic impact. But there is vigorous internal debate going on the continent," Ansari said.
He said debate revolved around the argument that tougher sanctions would make Iran feel more threatened and reckless.
Germany exported goods worth 4.1 billion euros to Iran last year, an amount similar to its exports to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Federal Statistics Office data show.
Italy exported 1.9 billion euros worth of goods, according to EU figures. Germany and Italy are resisting a halt to new export guarantees being mooted as part of EU-wide sanctions.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has been markedly measured in recent comments about further sanctions, in contrast to tough talk by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. Paris is taking the lead in trying to persuade European Union countries to impose sanctions on Tehran.
"In terms of the French push to apply EU sanctions, Germany's reluctance to take steps that would harm its own small businesses has great play, with the Italians and Spanish on the same end of the scale," said Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for non-proliferation studies at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Russia, which is building Iran's first atomic power plant, sent Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Tehran to see Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last week and urge an extra, "more active" Iranian effort to resolve U.N. watchdog doubts.
Despite Moscow's outwardly anti-U.S. stance, its diplomatic "go-between" work behind the scenes could foster a more fruitful climate for negotiations, some analysts say. With big business stakes in Iran, Russia is strongly opposed to military action. ( Reuters )