Why are we asking this question now? Can we believe Iran when it denies wanting the bomb? Anne Penketh asks the big question ...
Why are we asking this question now?
Because of the furore surrounding the visit of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to New York for the UN general assembly session. He was greeted by headlines in the New York tabloids which screamed "The Evil has Landed" and " Madman Iran Prez". He gave his third address as president to the UN General Assembly last night, but only after a controversial meeting at Columbia Uuniversity, whose authorities came under strong pressure to deny him a platform.
How did he do?
He set out the policy of Iran's "peaceful" nuclear programme, and responded to questions about his troubling statements concerning his denial of the Holocaust and on seeking the destruction of Israel. But he destroyed his own credibility by asserting, in response to a question, that "in Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country". That comment earned him the most laughter – and boos – of the event.
So was the US right to try to silence him?
Of course not. The president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, undermined his own case for freedom of speech in his insulting introduction in which he described the university's guest as exhibiting "all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator" and expressed the hope that Mr Ahmadinejad would not remain in office.
There are several problems with America's demonisation of Mr Ahmadinejad. Firstly, it confers on him a prominence in the Iranian power structure that he does not have in reality. It is not the Iranian president who wields the most power in Tehran: the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calls the shots and decides nuclear policy. Secondly, scare-mongering has proved counter-productive by enabling him to portray nuclear power as a priority and a matter of national pride.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech courtesy of MSNBC
The personal insults aimed at the Iranian president during his New York visit could also end up increasing his popularity at home, rather than the reverse. But there is also the grim reminder of Saddam Hussein, who was the last foreign leader demonized by the American administration and US television networks. With a figure like President Ahmadinejad held up as the representative of the "axis of evil" by the Bush administration, it can only comfort the position of the US and Israeli hawks who believe that Iran should be stopped from obtaining a nuclear weapon, by military force if necessary.
Is he convincing on the nuclear issue?
Yes, actually. He noted that Iran is within its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. He argued that Iran needs to be self-reliant in producing its own nuclear fuel for energy because it had been let down by several western suppliers since the days of the Shah. He also pointed out that the UN inspectors have certified that Iran has not enriched uranium beyond the level of five per cent, which is the grade required to power a civilian reactor. Weapons grade uranium needs to be enriched to more than 90 per cent.
Can we believe Iran when it denies wanting the bomb?
Sadly not. Too much mistrust has built up over the years between the West and Iran which has concealed its activities from UN nuclear inspectors in the past. Most western experts believe that Iran wants to continue its nuclear programme until it has the "break-out" capability of building a bomb. In other words Tehran wants to keep its options open, and now that it has mastered the technology for enriching uranium, the route to highly-enriched weapons grade fuel is only a matter of time if the Iranians decide to break out of the UN process.
But it is true that UN inspectors have not proved any deviation of Iran's programme towards military research. Iran reached an agreement last month with the International Atomic Energy Agency, in hopes of deflecting a new round of UN sanctions by agreeing to answer all outstanding questions on Iran's past nuclear activities before the end of the year.
While Russia and China, on the UN Security Council, have welcomed this agreement, the US and Britain have accused the Iranians of a tactical delay while refusing to meet the main UN demand of halting uranium enrichment.
As Mr Ahmadinejad himself noted, "we're all well aware that Iran's nuclear issue is a political issue, it's not a legal issue."
What happens now?
The UN security council is trying to coerce Iran into halting uranium enrichment in order to have an objective guarantee that the most sensitive part of the Iranian programme has been suspended. Once that happens, according to the US and the Europeans, negotiations can begin. But it seems unlikely that the West would ever allow Iran its own domestic fuel cycle. The Americans have even managed to lean on Russia to delay delivering fuel for Iran's civilian nuclear plant under construction at Bushehr. Iran refuses to compromise on its right to uranium enrichment, so the standoff is set to continue.
The permanent Security Council members – US, UK, France, Russia and China – plus Germany are to hold a ministerial-level meeting on Friday to discuss possible further UN measures. In the light of continuing resistance from Russia and China, the US, UK and France are threatening to consider additional commercial measures outside the UN framework But all agree that the UN remains the most effective forum, even though reaching agreement will take time. And that's where the possibility of military strikes can't be ruled out, in the light of Iran's steadfast refusal to stop enrichment.
What's wrong with Iran getting the bomb anyway?
The main objection to Shia Muslim Iran obtaining the bomb is that it would fundamentally change the strategic balance in the Middle East – where Israel is the only (non-declared) nuclear power – and beyond, and contribute to a new nuclear arms race which has probably already begun. And, of course, Mr Ahmadinejad's statements about Israel have further deepened international concern. His repeated appeals for the return of the "Hidden Imam" – including at the outset of his remarks at Columbia – are a reminder that he is a member of a sect that may well desire the end of the world through a nuclear apocalypse. However, everybody knows, including the Iranians, that if ever they developed a bomb and dropped it on Israel, Tehran would be " razed", as the former French president, Jacques Chirac once put it
Is the US likely to attack Iran?
* Sanctions won't stop Iran from pursuing uranium enrichment
* President Bush has promised that he won't leave office without solving the Iran problem
* US air power can be freed up to strike Iranian targets, despite military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan
* The US is too bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan to free up military resources for such an offensive
* Economic sanctions need time to work, and there can be a diplomatic solution if the UN security council is united
* Iran could harm US interests across the Middle East by retaliating in case of military action