Where is the new plant situated and how much is known about it?
It’s located near the city of Qom, a centre of Shiite, Islamic religious learning in northern Iran. The actual site is on a base run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the main military force loyal to the hard-line Islamic regime. According to reports the facility is a small one, making it of little use for energy generation, but capable of arming a nuclear weapon.
Is Iran definitely after nuclear weapons?
Iran has had a nuclear programme since the 1970s and the Shah’s pro-Western regime, which was toppled in 1979. Tehran’s protestations that it is only developing a nuclear capacity for civilian energy-generating purposes lacks credibility. It is reasonable to assume that Iran wants a nuclear weapons capacity for reasons of international prestige. Does it want to develop a fully-fledged nuclear weapons arsenal, or will it stop just short of such a move, like Japan? This is a matter of conjecture, though most Western experts fear the former.
Under the IAEA, what is Iran allowed to do? Has it broken the rules?
Iran is a member of the IAEA (The International Atomic Energy Agency). The IAEA acknowledges the right of its members to develop a nuclear capacity for civilian, energy purposes. Notionally, Iran is acting within these parameters. But the IAEA also calls on member states to inform it of new developments on the ground, something Tehran has repeatedly failed to do. It is this behaviourthat has enabled the US and Europeans to elicit successive rounds of economic sanctions against Iran endorsed by the UN Security Council.
Why did Iran wait unitl now to reveal its second enrichment facility?
The regime only admitted the existence of the facility once it had been found out! The US is reckoned to have known about it for a couple of years, making the revelation a matter of Washington’s preferred timing, designed to heap maximum diplomatic pressure on Tehran.
What is Israel’s bearing on the situation?
Israel sees Iran as its only strategic threat in the region. It is unnerved by the hard-line rhetoric of President Ahmadinejad, which denies the existence of the Holocaust. It does not want to lose its qualitative military edge. Israel fears that a nuclear Iran will embolden the enemies on its borders, like Hamas in Gaza or Hizbollah in Lebanon, which are allied to Iran. Longer term, a ratcheting up in regional tensions may discourage Jews from moving to Israel, or even trigger a stampede of emigration, thereby threatening its viability as a largely Jewish state. As a result, Israel has said that it will not co-exist with a nuclear Iran, a threat that must be taken very seriously.
What are the most likely scenarios?
There are three choices ahead for the US. One, conclude a ‘grand bargain’ with Iran, whereby Tehran gets respect and supervised nuclear energy, in exchange for disavowing nuclear weapons. Two, Iran refuses to respond sufficiently in the current round of talks (which commenced on Oct 1), resulting in attempts by the US and the Europeans to introduce punitive sanctions at the UN in order to enforce compliance. Three, sanctions don’t work, leaving Obama with his Kennedy moment: either the West accepts an Iranian nuclear fait accompli, or signals a willingness to use military force to ensure that Iran does not go nuclear.