At a decisive moment in the struggle over Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran’s true intentions — and the West’s real options — remain murky. Even such basic questions as “Who calls the shots?” are open to debate. One thing is known: Iran has vast amounts of oil and plenty of ways to retaliate, whatever the world decides to do.
A look at some questions surrounding the crisis:
Q: How close is Iran to making a nuclear bomb?
A: Iran says its nuclear program is purely for generating electricity and that it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons.
The United States disputes that, saying it believes Iran aims for atomic weapons. And Iran’s Jan. 10 decision to restart small-scale uranium enrichment — and its president’s call for Israel to be wiped off the map — have clearly jolted the world.
The International Atomic Energy Agency says a three-year investigation produced no evidence Iran is trying to build atomic arms, but didn’t rule that out either. And U.S. intelligence made public last year suggested Tehran’s scientists do have engineering drafts of a nuclear warhead.
If Iran kicked into high gear on uranium enrichment — something it threatens to do if it is taken before the U.N. Security Council — it could produce nuclear weapons from three to 10 years later, experts estimate.
Q: What will happen Thursday and Friday?
A: The board of the IAEA is expected to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council, essentially asking it to take on international oversight of Tehran’s nuclear program. Russia and China agreed last week on the need for that — a victory for the United States.
Q: What happens after that?
A: Reporting Iran to the Security Council would be just the start of a long process that could end in sanctions against Tehran. But nothing is likely to happen fast.
For starters, the most powerful members of the U.N. have agreed that the Security Council should wait until March to take up Iran’s case. The delay could give Iran time to moderate its position, or agree to let Russia perform nuclear enrichment work on its behalf. Or, it could just mean continued stalemate.
Q: If Iran doesn’t back down, will Security Council sanctions be the end result?
A: It seems unlikely. China and Russia generally oppose using the council to impose sanctions, and both are trading partners with Iran. They would probably try to block such a move.
U.S. officials have also said they want to take a gradual approach — possibly starting with a council statement of concern or reprimand, and only seeking a legally binding resolution that could include sanctions as a last resort.
If sanctions are imposed, they could be tough to enforce, could cripple Iran’s economy and damage its standard of living — and almost certainly would force up world oil prices.
Q: If the West is so worried, why not just use airstrikes to disable Iran’s program?
A: That could be much harder, militarily, than it seems. Any strikes — to be effective — would have to take out several sites, some underground. Other sites may be unknown. And with the United States occupied with Iraq, any larger effort, such as an invasion, seems unlikely. The Bush administration says such a military operation is not an option now.
In addition, even a limited strike would be highly unpopular with U.S. allies, and could rally Iranians — known for their strong nationalism.
Iran has plenty of ways to retaliate, from stirring up trouble in southern Iraq to using an oil boycott as an economic weapon against Europe, China or India. Oil supplies are tight worldwide and prices are already high.
Q: This crisis seems to have blown up so fast. Weren’t Iran and Europe negotiating just a few months ago?
A: Yes. And the Bush administration had tacitly agreed that negotiations were the way to proceed.
But after the election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran became more insistent on its right to pursue a nuclear program, and European negotiators say it became less cooperative.
Its decision to restart small-scale uranium enrichment — and its swipes at Israel — apparently rattled China and Russia enough that they agreed to push its case to the Security Council.
Q: Why is Iran’s president taking such a confrontational stance? What does he really want, and is he really in control?
A: The United States and much of the West have struggled for years — decades even — to discern whether Iran’s hard-line clerics or the president are really calling the shots.
It’s clear that many hard-liner aims are unpopular among young Iranians, who previously had voted for reformers until those reformers failed. But the goal of Iran being a world nuclear technology leader is widely popular — almost a national point of pride.
It may be that Ahmadinejad, trying to solidify his political support, has found an issue that plays well among the public. Or, perhaps the clerics are trying to rally people, thus finding a way to revive support for their Islamic Republic.
Criticism of the United States also still plays well in a country that has always blamed America for first overthrowing a democratically elected Iranian government in the 1950s, and then supporting a hated shah.
Ahmadinejad’s weak spot is Iran’s dire economy. Like any leader anywhere, he may just be trying to distract attention from what he can’t fix.