By Scott Peterson Staff writer
Christian Science Monitor
updated 2/17/2012 6:11:23 PM ET 2012-02-17T23:11:23

Are you afraid of Iran yet? Shrill warnings of war or imminent apocalypse over Iran's nuclear program have never been so strident, or so ominous.

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A window is closing fast, the narrative goes, to prevent a fanatical and suicidal religious regime from acquiring the ultimate tools of Armageddon: nuclear weapons. Within months, some politicians claim, either Israel, the United States, or both may have no choice but to attack Iran to remove this "existential threat" to the Jewish state.

The world is facing another Hitler, declares Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and this moment of decision is akin to the eve of World War II. Iran is a threat to Israel and "a real danger to humanity as a whole," warns Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Iran nuclear program: 5 key sites

The tone on the US presidential campaign trail is no less dire. GOP hopeful Rick Santorum recently told a crowd that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, "let me assure you, you will not be safe, even here in Missouri." One of his opponents, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, claims an Iranian strike on the US is "a real danger" that would make the 9/11 attacks look small. "Now imagine an attack where you add two zeros, and it's 300,000 dead," he said in early February. "This is not science fiction."

Experts: Coexistence may be possible
Yet it is also far from likely – even if Iran were to build a nuclear arsenal. In fact, say analysts and nonproliferation experts who have studied the effect of the bomb on countries, coexisting with a nuclear-armed Iran – or at least a nuclear-capable Iran – may well be possible, even inevitable, whether a military strike delays that outcome or not.

Iran 'unlikely' to provoke conflict, US official says

Analysts say Iran is not an irrational, suicidal actor that can't be deterred. Nor do they believe it is determined to destroy Israel at all costs. A recent Israeli think tank simulation of "the day after" an Iranian nuclear test came to the same conclusion: that nuclear annihilation will not automatically result.

Yet a nuclearized Iran would precipitate some profound changes across a chronically unstable region. Military balances would shift. Political relations among antagonists – and allies – would become more complicated. Israel would lose its nuclear hegemony in the Middle East.

Underlying it all loom major questions. Would Iran, implacable foe of the US and Israel, suddenly become beyond attack, like North Korea? Would Iran and Israel settle into a decades-long regional cold war, like that between India and Pakistan? Would Iran's jittery Persian Gulf neighbors rush to become nuclear powers themselves, setting off a dangerous and irreversible new arms race?

Strait of Hormuz: Iranians, smugglers and fireworks

The questions swirled as Iran signaled on Feb. 16 that it was ready with "new initiatives" to resume long-stalled talks over its nuclear program with the US and other big powers. But the Iranians were nebulous about any possible concessions to previous Western demands – demands that diplomats say have only risen higher in a US election year. Renewed chances of talks came during a week when Tehran also proclaimed new advances in nuclear technology. As a result of all this, the possibility of any political breakthrough is far from certain.

It is not a fait accompli, of course, that Iran will build a bomb, even though it sometimes seems as if it is – and many Americans believe the country already has. As recently as 2010, for instance, a CNN poll found that 71 percent of Americans believed Iran has a nuclear arsenal.

No decision yet by Tehran?
Yet American intelligence agencies agree that Tehran hasn't yet decided to go for a nuclear bomb – and that even if it chose to, it would take years to create one and the means to deliver it. Israeli intelligence is also reported to have reached the same conclusion.

In testimony before Congress in late January, the US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said Iran is "keeping open the option" to develop nuclear weapons. But, he added, "we do not know" if it will. TheUnited Nations' nuclear watchdog agency, theInternational Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in its latest report last November, detailed alleged weapons-related work for the first time, but said "systematic" work was halted in 2003.

Tehran has long claimed it wants only to make nuclear power peacefully, and in Iran, embracing "nuclear rights" enjoys wide, popular support because it blends national pride and scientific prowess. Publicly, Iranian rulers profess to reject atomic weapons, and at the highest levels they evoke Islamic religious reasons to oppose all weapons of mass destruction.

Yet analysts and diplomats note that Iran does have many reasons to develop at least a "breakout" capability – the ability to assemble a bomb quickly should it want to. Tehran has watched modern history unfold around it and no doubt has drawn its own conclusions. Acquiring nuclear weapons helped preserve regimes in North Korea and Pakistan, for instance. But in Iraq and Libya, two nonnuclear countries, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi were deposed. The Iranian media, in fact, tut-tutted last year that Mr. Qaddafi's fatal error was relinquishing his secret nuclear weapons program in 2004.

"If I was an Iranian national security planner, I would want nuclear weapons," Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA now at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in January.

"Look at the neighborhood that I live in: Everyone else has nuclear weapons who matters; and those who don't, don't matter, and get invaded by the United States of America," Mr. Riedel said on a panel hosted by the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

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Video: Israel preparing for airstrike on Iran?

  1. Closed captioning of: Israel preparing for airstrike on Iran?

    >>> the u.s. director of national intelligence sees limited benefit from an attack on iran saying it might set back the country's nuclear development program by one or two years. leon panetta recently down played the likelihood of an israeli air strike . joining us now is silven. as you know the secretary general says diplomacy is the way. why are you leaving the military option on the table?

    >> i absolutely agree with secretary general which i met with only three days ago. we've got to solve the problem. unfortunately, the security council cannot do it because russia and china do not want to impose sanctions in order to stop this. and why no one can stop this, everything should be put on the table. we need to understand it's not israeli/ iran conflict , it's a conflict that belongs to all of us. for many, many years, much of the world believed -- after the terrorist attack that was carried out here in new york , after the attack carried out in madrid and russia, the world is much more determined, and outcome is very positive. only recently in 2007 , the americans said that the iranians abandoned their military program and now they realize they were wrong. now they realize that the iranians continue to develop nuclear bomb and developing new missiles with much longer range. in that range is -- even new york , even new york --

    >> let me be specific about what he had to say. he said u.s. intelligence believes iran's leaders have not decided to build nuclear weapons but are pursuing technology that would allow them to do so. from your perspective -- well, first of all, is he wrong about that? and if not, what's the line? where does it cross over from being a nuclear development program aimed at civilian purposes and a weaponized program.

    >> i think it's out of the question. everyone now knows most of the world if not all the world knows the iranians are trying to develop a nuclear bomb . it's out of the question. they have all the proof. everyone knows the security and intelligence of the west world knows very well the iranians are developing a nuclear bomb . and they should be stopped. it can't be --

    >> why don't we talk about what is happening. the team from the agency is set to meet with officials in tehran next week and president ahmadinejad did signal earlier this week he's open to talks about the nuclear program and you're already kind of smiling about that.

    >> because they're trying to buy time now for more than a decade. and always when they feel that the pressure is too hard, when the sanctions are on the way, they are trying to get engaged. we would like to them to get engaged, to do what needs to be done, to stop the military program because we are in the assembled. these days the iranians are trying not only to have that nuclear bomb , they're trying to take control of all the oil fields , and to revive the persian empire . they believe if they have a nuclear bomb to give them an insurance policy to keep the regime in power. and we would like to believe that it should be different if the sanctions would be tough enough finally they might think that they should abandon their dream to hold a nuclear bomb that the last decision taken by the eu is what's very, very important for the iranian oil, a decision followed by the united states , canada, australia, japan, south korea . you impose sanctions on the iranian central bank . if they would do so, they might change the iranian attitude. and until then, the iranians are laughing, they are bluffing, they are trying all the time to make progress. and one year after another, they are very, very close. even secretary panetta and the militants are saying if they would move the enrichment to 20%, it would take them only one year and they will hold a nuclear bomb .

    >> do you think you're going to get a ticket to the knicks game tonight? he confided in me he's trying to go to the knicks game. do you think you're going to go?

    >> i hope so.

    >> who are you cheering for?

    >> the knicks .

    >> we're just checking.

    >> since i was born, i'm a big fan of the knicks . unfortunately they're doing so bad for so many years that i would like to believe that now with jeremy lin maybe this will be different. tonight i hope to be there and i hope that the score will be very good.

    >> well, it's good of you to come in, israel's vice prime minister. have fun tonight.


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