The more vexing questions are whether Iran has the capability or the desire to build nuclear weapons. The answers to those questions are mired in speculation, sensationalism and political hype. Which is to say that nobody knows for sure what Iran wants or is capable of building. Which is exactly the way Iran wants it: so long as Israel or the United States do not attack Iran's nuclear installations militarily, the uncertainty puts Iran at an indisputable advantage by forcing other nations willing to bargain with Iran to do so on Iran's terms. Doing so is the likeliest way for Iran to win concessions it would not otherwise win if its nuclear program were an open book. The uncertainty, therefore, is by Iranian design. It is Iran's strategy.
Iran's Capability to Build Nukes
On Oct. 3, 2009, senior members of the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency concluded in a secret analysis that Iran has "sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable" atomic bomb. But the report was fraught with qualifiers. The agency also cautioned that its findings were based on a sundry of intelligence reports and its own investigations, none of which are based on incontrovertible firsthand reporting.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian-born head of the IAEA, has refused to release the latest report because he says it is incomplete and possibly unreliable. In September 2009, the IAEA stressed that it had "no concrete proof" that Iran either had the capability to build nuclear weapons ir the desire to do so.
In November 2007, El Baradei said that Iran was operating 3,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges capable of producing material for nuclear weapons. But uranium-enriching centrifuges are also used in the production of electricity. It was unclear then, as it has been since, whether Iran's intentions went beyond electricity generation.
In December 2007, an American national intelligence estimate (which represent the consensus opinion of the 19 American intelligence agencies inside and outside the Pentagon) concluded that Iran had been developing a nuclear-weapons program, but that it had halted all production in that direction in 2003. Those conclusions did much to realign the Bush administration against taking a hawkish approach toward Iran.
Successive Israeli governments, however, dismissed the intelligence findings and insisted that Iran was on course to build a bomb. Both the governments of Ehud Olmert during the Bush administration and that of Benjamin Netanyahu during the Obama administration applied pressures on Europe and the United States to take a harder line against Iran. Plans for an Israeli strike against Iranian targets were so advanced that late in the Bush administration, Bush denied a request by Olmert to support just such an Israeli strike. (Israel had requested bunker-busting bombs from the administration.)
Iran's Desire to Build Nukes
Officially, the Iranian government maintains that it has no desire to build nuclear weapons--but that it would not seek permission from outside powers if it were inclined to do so. Iran's position of calculated secrecy on nuclear matters is modeled after Israel, which developed nuclear weapons in the 1960s at its nuclear facility at Dimona, in the Negev Desert, while officially remaining mum about its designs and capabilities. Israel is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which enables it to forbid international inspectors from the IAEA from visiting its nuclear sites--and enables it to produce nuclear weapons virtually unpenalized.
Iran is a signatory to the NPT. As such, it is required to open its sites to inspections. By hiding such sides and hedging when required to open what sites are known or discovered, Iran intensifies speculation about its desires.
Meanwhile, similarities are growing between charges of Iran's supposed march toward acquiring weapons of mass destruction and charges of Iraq's acquisition of WMDs in the run-up to the Iraq war. George W. Bush launched the Iraq war primarily on the assumption that Saddam Hussein possessed chemical, biological and, possibly, nuclear weapons. Saddam had denied possessing such weapons. He was right. Bush was wrong.
The Obama administration is hoping not to repeat the same mistakes. But as of late 2009, it was being pressured by the same toxic brew of speculation and politicized charges that made the Iraq war--and its ensuing catastrophes--possible.