The question of war with Iran over her nuclear program has been around for a decade.  In October 2005 Iranian Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a speech at the World Without Zionism conference in Asia, in which he allegedly said, “Israel must be wiped off the map.”  The propaganda war, with mutual demonization, was initiated.  In 2006, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu countered, in a speech to the United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Los Angeles: “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany.”

Last year, the spread of the Stuxnet virus, a “cyber weapon,” affected the performance of centrifuges at central Iran’s Natanz uranium-enrichment facility and could be characterized as an act of sabotage.  Assassinations of Iranian scientists, including Mostafa Ahmadi-Rishan, deputy head of the Natanz plant, are an indication that a covert war is already under way.  Israel has claimed that Iran was behind attacks on diplomats in India and Thailand.

Iran has never been more isolated since 1979.  As Israel rattles her sabers, and Iran beats her breast, both parties appear to be sleepwalking their way into war.  The United States and the European Union, in imposing crippling sanctions, are also doing their part.  Iran, for her part, has conducted war games in the narrow Straits of Hormuz, through which one sixth of global oil supplies passes.  Gen. Michael Hayden, former CIA director, is calling Iran “the single most worrisome topic” the U.S. security community faces, as it is on an “inexorable” path to nukes.  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta says that “We will stop Iran’s weapons program.”  He believes there is a “strong likelihood” that Israel will launch air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities in “April, May or June.”  Iran has proposed resumption of the multilateral dialogue.  President Obama seems convinced that negotiations will not only avert war but lay to rest the issue of Iranian nuclear weapons.  Yet Israeli officials have remained unfazed by the White House’s pleas for continued negotiations, adding to their saber rattling signals that Israel won’t warn Washington before launching a strike on Iran.  This led to an emergency meeting on March 5 with Netanyahu in Washington.

The Republican primaries have opened yet another front, as candidates attempt to curry favor with the neoconservatives.  Frontrunner Mitt Romney blasted President Obama for trying to “engage” Iran, while Gingrich and Santorum are even more bellicose.  Texas congressman Ron Paul is the only exception.  He says that the latest U.S. sanctions are themselves “acts of war.”  The media is fueling this warmongering campaign by disseminating disinformation about the Iranian nuclear program.  Is this all about attempting to use the Iranian nuclear issue to force a change in the theocratic Iranian regime, or is there a real threat of a nuclear Iran?  To answer this question, the American public needs to understand the status of the Iranian nuclear program.

Under the landmark Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which entered into force in 1970 with 189 signatories, five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China) may possess nuclear weapons.  Israel, India, and Pakistan declined to sign the NPT and have developed nuclear-weapons stockpiles.  North Korea ratified the NPT but withdrew in 2003.  Iran ratified the treaty in 1974.  The NPT recognizes the “inalienable right” of nonnuclear-weapons states who have signed the treaty to develop and use nuclear technology for peaceful applications.  That includes Iran.

In the late 1950’s the United States signed bilateral agreements with Iran, as a part of the Atoms for Peace Program, to share nuclear materials and technology for peaceful applications.  In 1967, the Tehran University Nuclear Research Center was equipped with a U.S.-supplied 5 MWth (megawatt-thermal) research reactor.  It was dubbed the Tehran Research Reactor, and it was fueled with highly enriched uranium (HEU), also supplied by the United States.

The shah established a very ambitious program for nuclear-electricity generation: 23,000 MW by the year 2000.  In 1974 Iran contracted with the German Kraftwerk Union (KWU) to build twin 1,196 MW nuclear plants at the Bushehr site.  The shah also purchased 10 percent of the French Eurodif plant for the low enrichment of uranium (LEU), which is enriched at 3-5 percent, to provide the uranium needed to run commercial nuclear plants.  In 1976, the United States offered a complete nuclear-cycle deal to Iran.  According to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissin­ger, nuclear-proliferation issues never came up.

After the Iranian Revolution (1979), the United States pressured the KWU to withdraw from construction of the Bushehr units.  Unit 1 was 85-percent complete.  France refused to supply LEU.  Between 1984 and 1988 the Bushehr plant was badly damaged in the Iran-Iraq war.  The U.S. blocked Western companies from bidding to complete the Bushehr plant and stopped fulfilling contracts, including cutting off the supply of HEU for the Tehran Research Reactor.  Iran signed an agreement with Argentina’s National Commission to convert the fuel from HEU to 19.75-percent LEU, or mid-enriched uranium (MEU).  The MEU fuel was delivered in 1993 with the blessing of the United States.

Iran initiated uranium-mining and milling exploration and turned to Russia and China for nuclear technology.  Two uranium mines are currently in operation.  In 1995, Iran signed an agreement with Russia’s Rosatom to complete Bushehr Unit 1 by substituting the German design with a Russian 1,000 MW VVER (Vodo-Vodyanoi Energetichesky Reactor) but retaining some structures and equipment.  The turnkey contract was signed in 1998.  Washington intervened several times in an attempt to convince Russia not to complete the plant.  U.S. officials questioned whether Iran even needed to have a nuclear plant, since Iran is the world’s fourth-largest oil producer.

In 1996, the United States convinced China to pull out of a contract to construct a uranium HEX plant, which would convert uranium oxide to uranium hexafluoride, an intermediate step needed for uranium-enrichment purposes.  However, the Chinese provided blueprints for the plant to the Iranians.

Abdul Qadar Khan, father of Pakistan’s Islamic Bomb, signed a consulting contract with the Iranian government in 1987, though it was not discovered by the West until 2003.  In the 1980’s Khan built the Pakistani uranium-enrichment plant, which generated weapons-grade uranium.  The bomb was tested in 1998.  From 1987 to 1995, Khan supplied Iran with centrifuge technology.

In 2002, the National Council of Resistance, an Iranian dissident group, revealed the existence of two nuclear plants under construction: a uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz and a 40-MW heavy-water reactor at Arak.  The United States then accused Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons.  The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the nuclear-safeguards watchdog, immediately sought and obtained access.  The IAEA inspectors arrived in 2003 to discover an underground hardened-uranium-enrichment facility capable of accommodating 50,000 centrifuges as well as the HEX Isfahan plant.  These plants have since been subjected to IAEA inspections.  The IAEA announced that there was “no evidence” that Iran was attempting to build the bomb.

From June 2006 to September 2008, negotiations failed.  Following that, five U.N. Security Council resolutions were passed, as well as three rounds of sanctions, demanding a termination of Iran’s uranium-enrichment activities.  In December 2007, the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate stated that Iran had stopped developing nuclear weapons in 2003.

In February 2009, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said that Iran has LEU, but “that doesn’t mean that they are going tomorrow to have nuclear weapons, because as long as they are under IAEA verification they aren’t weaponizing . . . ”  Indeed, ElBaradei pointed out, “many countries are enriching uranium without the world making any fuss about it.”  In September 2009, Iran revealed the existence of a second enrichment plant at Fordow, near the holy city of Qom.  The site is a highly protected underground bunker.  Iran cited a need to preserve know-how if attacked.  Following this revelation, there was a furor in the West and a renewed demand for more sanctions.

In November 2011, the IAEA released a report stating inspectors had found credible evidence that Iran had been conducting experiments aimed at designing a nuclear weapon until 2003 and that research may have continued at a slower pace.  The IAEA Board of Governors passed a resolution declaring it “essential” that Iran provide additional information.  The White House welcomed the resolution and said it would step up sanctions.

For over two decades Iran has developed a robust infrastructure for the peaceful application of nuclear energy.  This applies to the front end of the nuclear-fuel cycle: uranium mining and milling, a facility for the conversion of uranium oxide to HEX at Isfahan, the Pilot Enrichment Plant (PFEP) at Natanz, and the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) near Qom.  The plants are now equipped with the Iranian-designed centrifuges.  After 35 years of construction, the Bushehr plant is generating nuclear electricity.  As of this writing, it is operating at 70-percent power.  The Russians have provided the nuclear fuel and will take possession of the spent fuel.  PFEP has enriched uranium to 19.75 percent, which has enabled the Iranians to manufacture fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, which today is producing radioisotopes for treating cancer.

It appears that these accomplishments have also enabled research on nuclear weapons.  After its February 20-21 visit, the IAEA released its latest report accusing Iran of not fully cooperating, as inspectors were not allowed access to the Parchin military site.  In addition, the report said Iran failed to give a convincing explanation about a quantity of missing uranium.  The IAEA has also confirmed that Iran has increased production of MEU and has begun feeding HEX into the FFEP.  The cumulative production of LEU between February 2007 and 2012 amounted to 5,451 kg.  A total of 95.4 kg HEX was enriched to 20 percent.  At the FFEP two sets of interconnected cascades of centrifuges produced 13.8 kg of 20-percent enriched HEX.  Empty centrifuge casings have been installed.  The Institute for Science and International Security, a U.S.-based think tank, notes that it is unclear whether—or when—Iran may install necessary rotor assemblies to create operational centrifuges: “Only time will tell if Iran can actually install the critical centrifuge rotors and operate the machines.”  It should be noted that 100 IAEA member states declared support for the Iranian program at the Board of Governors meeting.

In 2005, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa against the development and usage of nuclear weapons.  Speaking on state television to mark the Iranian New Year in March of this year, Ali Khamenei said, “We do not have atomic weapons and will not build one.”  Should he remove the ban, the underground bunkered FFEP, with its 3,000 centrifuges, could be used to generate weapons-grade uranium.  At that time, Iran would have to do what the North Koreans did in 2003—kick the IAEA inspectors out.  Presumably, this would represent a red line for the United States.  Such an action would establish the first of three conditions necessary for Iran to develop a nuclear-weapons capability.  The other two would be to design and test the nuclear warhead, and to develop a missile capable of delivering it.  Iran probably has a nuclear-weapon design, which needs to be tested once enough weapons-grade uranium is available; Iran has already tested missiles that could reach Israel, Russia, and U.S. bases in the Middle East.

Mark Fitzpatrick of the London Institute for Strategic Studies has summarized well the Iranian effort: “Iran certainly seeks a nuclear weapon in the long run.  But there is no evidence today that they have taken the final decision to build one.  If they took that decision now, it would be another year before they could conduct a test, given all the facilities we know about.”

Not one of the three conditions seems to have been met, which means there is ample time for meaningful negotiations.

The U.N. Security Council’s demand that Iran abandon her uranium-enrichment activities cannot be justified: The NPT clearly allows for the enrichment of uranium.  The White House has recently dropped its reservations over Jordanian uranium enrichment.  This approach has failed.  Even if the present theocratic regime would somehow disappear, its substitute would be equally committed to the nuclear program, which has become a matter of national pride.  Instead, the international community should offer assurances to Iran that there would be no sanctions and threats of a military attack, provided that Iran commit not to produce weapons-grade uranium.

Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat, and some in Israel would like to implement the Begin Doctrine, which could be summed up by the phrase “The best defense is forceful preemption.”  In 1981 Israel bombed an Iraqi reactor under construction outside of Baghdad.  Menachem Begin dispatched eight F-16 bombers, which destroyed the plant.  The Israelis had ignored world opinion, including condemnations from Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.  The same doctrine was applied in 2007 to destroy a Syrian desert installation that Washington described as a North Korean-supplied reactor under construction.  Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor-at-large for United Press International, points out that, in the minds of many Israelis, there is little doubt that Iran will attempt to wipe out the Israelis in a single strike against Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.  “Similar paranoia gripped the Unites States in the late 1940s and 50s.”

Israel’s three principal intelligence chiefs, who retired last year, have publicly stated that they do not believe the leaders of the Iranian theocracy at Qom have such intentions.  A single nuke aimed at Israel would trigger massive retaliatory blows in mere hours that would leave Iranians without a country.  U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey described Iran as a “rational actor.”  Nonetheless, some in Israel argue that 2012 is the year when decisions must be made, because Iran is getting closer to building a nuclear weapon.  They realize that it might still take Iran a year, but Iran is “immunizing” the facilities.

The Obama administration believes Iran is not close to conducting a nuclear-weapons test and has no evidence that Iran has made a final decision to build nuclear weapons.  Hence, for the time being, the President wants to rely on sanctions, sabotage, and diplomacy.  This view is shared by Great Britain and the European Union.

In a video message for the Iranian New Year, President Obama appealed directly to the Iranian people with a message of solidarity.  Khamenei responded defiantly that, if Iran is attacked by the United States or Israel, “we will attack them on the same level that they attack us.”

Nearly three out of four Americans oppose an Israeli attack on Iran.