What will happen when Iran acquires nuclear weapons?
Talk in the West about Iran's atomic ambitions is often punctuated with the word "apocalypse." As the Soviet Union was once vilified, so Iran is today.
The Islamic Republic is accused of exporting terrorism, is the target (along with Iraq) of an American policy of "dual containment" and sanctions, and is feared by nearly all its Mideast neighbors.
President Hashemi Rafsanjani declared in June that Iran "hates nuclear and chemical weapons." But Western sources are convinced that Iran wants nuclear weapons to counter Israel's nuclear monopoly in the region.
Opinion is divided over the result: Would Iran with nukes mean an explosion of terrorism and blackmail - or a new cold-war-style stability?
So far, American pressure on Iran's nuclear suppliers seems to have forced Iran to adjust its suspected timetable for a bomb - once thought to be 2000. Experts now say Iran is unlikely to acquire nuclear weapons for eight or 10 years. Well before then, Iran is expected to have ballistic missiles that could hit targets as far away as Israel.
"Yes, some say we must have the atomic bomb," says an Iranian official. "But we can't afford it. The political consequences are too much trouble, and it's expensive."
Iran has said it plans to build "about 10" nuclear power plants. But many question Iran's need for nuclear energy when it has the second-largest oil and gas reserves in the world.
Western analysts find several motives for a bomb. "Iran ... wants to be among the countries that count," says a Western diplomat. "They don't accept that the bomb is for India and Pakistan and not for them."
Iraq's defeat in 1991 may also have persuaded Iranian officials that conventional strength will not deter Western intervention. "They realize that even with all the faith and fanaticism, they are nothing without these weapons," he says.
Israel - which covertly acquired elements of its own nuclear arsenal, including advanced US nuclear design technology, according to the London-based monthly Jane's Intelligence Review - has been the first to sound the alarm, strongly hinting it might strike Iran's nuclear facilities, just as it hit Iraq's reactor with warplanes in 1981.
But politicians' words and "intelligence leaks" sometimes seem designed to magnify the threat, providing Israel with a tool for swaying internal and US public opinion.
Fears are also voiced in tiny, oil-rich shiekhdoms to the south. "When Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will blackmail all its neighbors," says Jamal al-Suwaidi, director of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi. "It will put the whole Gulf under a cloud."
Iran's stated policy is to ensure peace in the region. And some argue that nuclear weapons could provide that stability.
"When Mao and Stalin acquired nuclear weapons, they calmed down," says Martin van Creveld, an Israeli military historian in Jerusalem. "If Islamic states get the bomb, the effect will be the same. Once you have the 'absolute weapon,' war ceases to be fun. It becomes suicide."
That lesson is not lost on Iran. Steven Zaloga, a senior missile analyst at the Virginia-based Teal Group, says: "Iran is not looking for war-fighting capability against Israel. It is looking to be able to inflict political damage...."
Determining the nature of Iran's nuclear effort isn't easy. The country is big enough to hide a major program, and internal politics are chaotic. "There could be two secret bomb programs, one run by the defense ministry and the other by the Revolutionary Guards," says a Western diplomat. "Each could be unknown to the other."
Iran has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But other indicators point to a 1970s nuclear program that was revitalized in the 1980s. Then-President Ali Khamenei said in 1987: "Regarding atomic energy, we need it now.... The least we can do ... is to let our enemies know that we can defend ourselves."
But progress has been slowed by a number of factors:
* Russia agreed in 1995 to build two nuclear reactors for Iran, despite strong protests from Washington. President Boris Yeltsin promised that Iran would not be able to make weapons-grade plutonium and canceled "military components." Moscow has its own worries about an Iran with the bomb: "If Iran can hit Israel, it can also hit Russia," says a senior Western diplomat here.
* Responding to US appeals, Ukraine said in April that it would not supply turbines for a Russian reactor project at Bushehr, Iran.
* Under US pressure, China suspended the sale of a uranium hexafluoride conversion plant, which Iran claimed to require for making fuel rods, at the end of 1996.
Iran has given the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency a "standing invitation" to inspect. The IAEA says it is not aware of any weapons program. But similar conclusions in Iraq and South Africa in the 1980s proved wrong. Iran will be the first test of new, more stringent IAEA safeguards.
Angry that Iran has been "singled out," an official says: "Even ... when IAEA inspectors are 'briefed' by Americans about 'secret' sites, you can't find anything."
Some suggest that Iran could build a primitive nuclear device in less than a year with black-market purchases. In 1992, then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher accused Iran of trying to buy enriched uranium from Kazakstan. The US airlifted out 500 kg. (227 lbs.) in 1994 to prevent such a sale, but some may have disappeared in transit, according to a Department of Energy memo leaked to The Washington Times.
Russia is increasingly worried about its decaying stockpile of more than 20,000 nuclear warheads. Radioactive material often disappears from state facilities. Ukraine has reportedly become a main smugglers' route.
And the Israeli situation adds fuel to the fire. "As long as Israel can have atomic bombs ... then other countries have a good excuse to pursue their plans," says Ebrahim Yazdi, an opposition leader in Tehran.
Would a cold-war-type peace work, given Iran's revolutionary focus on sacrifice? One European remembers his own relief work during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s: "Ayatollah Khomeini sent tens of thousands of kids to 'clear' the minefields. I'm not sure that a nuclear deterrent would work here."