The November 8 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report casts further doubt on Iran's continual claims that its nuclear program is intended solely for peaceful use. Rather than halting its weapons program in 2003, as was reported in a controversial 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, Iran has apparently continued to develop the various components necessary to produce a nuclear weapon, including neutron initiators, which trigger nuclear chain reactions, and complex explosives needed to build a warhead small enough to place atop a ballistic missile. Meanwhile, Tehran has openly worked to increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium -- especially uranium enriched to 20 percent -- which could be further refined to weapons grade. If the IAEA's suspicions are correct, Iran might have both the technology and material to build a nuclear bomb in a matter of months.
To date, the United States has relied on a combination of sticks and carrots to prevent Iran from going nuclear. It has tightened economic sanctions against the regime, isolated it diplomatically, and offered improved relations in return for Tehran abandoning its nuclear ambitions. The attractions of this approach are readily apparent. The main alternative, a military operation against Iran's nuclear infrastructure, would likely be extremely costly and might not even succeed. Moreover, by slowing Iran's progress toward a nuclear weapon, sanctions and isolation buy time for a "silver bullet," such as an internal political change that brings a more moderate Iranian leadership to power or a sabotage effort that derails the program for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, no such solution has presented itself: The current Iranian regime has remained in control despite popular unrest and an ongoing dispute between the president and the supreme leader, and the new IAEA report suggests that efforts to disrupt Iran's nuclear program have so far yielded naught. All the while, Iran is getting closer to crossing the nuclear threshold.
Even so, the U.S. government might persist with its existing approach if it believes that the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran are
- Full website and iPad access
- Magazine issues
- New! Books from the Foreign Affairs Anthology Series