How close is Iran to a bomb?
President Ahmadinejad's bellicose rhetoric has raised concerns about Iran's intentions. Whether or not he is reelected Friday, here's what Western policymakers now need to consider.
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President Ahmadinejad says Iran's program is for peaceful purposes, but his rhetoric is aggressive. "Now we have 7,000 centrifuges and the West dare not threaten us," he said in May.Skip to next paragraph
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What are the diplomatic options?
In April, the US said it could sit down with Iran and other key parties – Russia, China, France, Germany, and Britain – and offered a freeze on new sanctions in exchange for a freeze on uranium enrichment.
But Ahmadinejad said last week that "The nuclear issue is a finished issue for us."
With elections on June 12, Ahmadinejad himself may not be in power much longer. At least two rivals have criticized his posturing as harmful to Iran.
Mr. White, who is convinced that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon at a steady pace, says decision-making on this issue lies with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In May, he took a hard line that may have been a warning to more moderate presidential hopefuls, says White.
"He's saying ... 'if you win, you'd better be hard-nosed in your negotiations with the West. We're not going to give away the store, no matter who wins the election.' "
What about the military option?
Before his election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that he would do "everything necessary" to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The US has worried about the prospect of a unilateral Israeli strike. Vice President Joe Biden warned in April that such a step would be "ill-advised."
On June 1, Israel's military intelligence chief, Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, alleged that Iran would have enough enriched uranium to make a bomb by the end of the year and said, "The Iranian clock is ticking faster than the clock of international dialogue." Israel sees a nuclear bomb in Iranian hands as an existential threat. But would military action, by Israel or by the US, be effective?
White, now a scholar at the nonpartisan Middle East Institute in Washington, thinks not. He says Iran's dispersed program and expertise would mean that any strike of the sort Israel could muster would be a temporary setback, and convince the Iranians that they need a weapon – fast.
"It would stimulate a surge toward a nuclear weapons capability," he says.
The US, able to launch missiles from warships in the Gulf and to fly bombers from both carriers and bases at places like Diego Garcia, is another matter.
"If the US acted, the known sites would be splattered in an air campaign of 1,000 to 2,000 sorties. But after that, we'd effectively be at war with Iran ... an unacceptable outcome for the tiny chance the Iranians would ever launch a first strike," White says, noting such action would severely damage US interests.
A May report by the RAND Corp., "Iran: Dangerous But Not Omnipotent," argues that Iran may not pose as big a threat as many assume. It says the US should temper its hostile rhetoric and increase international pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear program.r