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The Problem with Iran

Just how close are the Iranians to making a nuclear weapon, and can they be stopped?

By William J. Broad, Mark Mazzetti, and David E. Sanger

After decades of hostility between Iran and the United States, President Obama took office in January hoping to improve relations between the two countries. He sent a televised Persian New Year greeting to the Iranian people and invited Iran's government to participate in talks without any preconditions.

Despite these gestures, tensions between the two nations—largely over Iran's nuclear program—have escalated in the last few months. Just a few days after the revelation in September of a secret nuclear facility, Iran test-fired missiles with sufficient range to strike Israel, parts of Europe, and American military bases in the Persian Gulf.

In fact, news of the secret nuclear facility, outside the holy city of Qum, and the missile test, came just days before the U.S. and Iran held their first direct talks since shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which left Iran under the control of an anti-American regime.

"This is not the first time that Iran has concealed information about its nuclear program," President Obama said after the disclosure of the new facility.

"Iran has a right to peaceful nuclear power that meets the energy needs of its people. But the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program. Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow."

Iran claims that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but the country's refusal to allow complete access to its facilities has led the U.S., Europe, and the United Nations to conclude that weapons are what the program is really about. The Obama administration is working with U.S. allies and the U.N. to assemble a package of tougher economic sanctions against Iran, including a cutoff of foreign investment in its critical oil and gas industry.

The hope is that pressure on Iran's faltering economy will weaken its leadership—already under pressure after a disputed presidential election. Hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, but enormous protests erupted amid widespread allegations of fraud. The Revolutionary Guards, who also run the country's missile program, led a violent crackdown against the protesters, which killed scores of people, many of them students.

It is believed that the secret nuclear plant outside Qum is intended for uranium enrichment—the process of turning raw uranium into reactor or bomb fuel. While it's only one part of the process of building a nuclear weapon, it is the most difficult part. The two other steps are building a nuclear warhead and developing a reliable delivery system, like the missile with a 1,250-mile range that Iran test-fired in September.

It's unclear how many months, or even years, it would take Iran to complete all three parts. That question has been the subject of sharp debate among U.S., European, and Israeli officials.

Little or No Warning?

The American position is that there would probably be considerable warning time before Iran completes those final steps toward making a weapon. But Europe and Israel have argued that there could be little or no warning time. They're also concerned that the U.S. is being overly cautious after getting the intelligence wrong on Iraq in the lead-up to the war in 2003, when President George W. Bush incorrectly said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

"It comes down to interpreting the same data in different ways, in looking at the same information and coming up with different conclusions," says Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, the former head of intelligence at the Department of Energy.

The wildcard in Iran's race for a nuclear weapon is the possibility that Israel might attack Iran's nuclear facilities. In 1981, Israel destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor to prevent Iraq, then ruled by Saddam Hussein, from building nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad's years of threats against Israel, and his constant denial of the Holocaust, have led Israel to consider Iran "an existential threat."

But Israel isn't the only country in the Middle East that is fearful of Iran's nuclear ambitions. Many of Iran's Arab neighbors have had tense relations with Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution put hardline clerics in control. Among Iran's Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf, there is growing resignation that Iran cannot be stopped from developing nuclear arms. And in the West, there's a growing fear that Arab states will want their own nuclear arsenals to counter Iran's.

"I think the gulf states are well advised now to develop strategies on the assumption that Iran is about to become a nuclear power," says Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a political science professor at United Arab Emirates University. "It's a whole new ball game. Iran is forcing everyone in the region now into an arms race."

Not everyone is that blunt in their assessment, but there is growing acknowledgement of the difficulty of stopping Iran.

"Like it or not, we may face a future where Iran goes on seeking nuclear capabilities and waging a diplomatic war of deception," says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The best we can probably hope for is a situation where international pressure keeps Iran from open testing and deployment."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, November 23, 2009)