Q. Is Iran trying to develop nuclear weapons?
A. It says its nuclear research is for energy purposes, which is permitted under the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But the Bush administration and some Western European governments charge that Iran is using a civilian energy program as a cover to build a nuclear weapon. They cite Iran's already ample energy resources in oil and natural gas, its failure to declare its uranium-enrichment program until an opposition group revealed it and other experiments it's conducted that point to an interest in weapons.
Q. How soon could Iran acquire a nuclear weapon?
A. No one knows for sure, even if it's actively pursuing nuclear weapons. Some Western diplomats predict that Iran could have enough fissile material — highly enriched uranium — for a weapon by 2009. Even if does, however, other steps are needed to make a workable weapon. Then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte said last year that Iran "might be in a position" to build a nuclear weapon between 2010 and 2015. But estimates are just that, and some have turned out to be wrong.
Q. Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Great Britain, France, Israel and North Korea all have nuclear weapons. What's so grave about the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon that President Bush might order a pre-emptive military strike to stop it?
A. Opinion is split, but many U.S. officials and analysts say a nuclear-armed Iran would set off an arms race in the Middle East, while Tehran's leaders would be more aggressive in trying to dominate the oil-rich Persian Gulf and sponsor terrorism. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — although he doesn't hold ultimate power — has threatened to wipe Israel off the map. Israel, however, could retaliate against an Iranian attack with its own much larger nuclear arsenal.
Although Bush said recently that allowing Iran to have nuclear weapons would invite World War III, some analysts argue that Iran would be deterred — much as the Soviet Union and China were — by the massive U.S. nuclear arsenal. Some proponents of attacking Iran, however, argue that the Islamic Republic's "apocalyptic" ideology means that the threat of a nuclear counterattack is more likely to induce an Iranian attack than it is to deter one.
Q. Will Bush order an attack on Iran before he leaves office?
A. That's the million-dollar question. The White House says Bush isn't gearing up for a third war in the Islamic world. There's widespread and increasingly vocal opposition in the top ranks of government, including from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and many members of Congress. Still, Vice President Dick Cheney and his allies are pushing for a strike on Iran before Bush leaves office, and the Pentagon has done some contingency planning. Bush has been willing to launch pre-emptive military action before.
Q. What impact would U.S. airstrikes have?
A. A U.S. attack might set back Iran's nuclear program considerably, but it's doubtful that it could eliminate all the infrastructure or wipe out Iranian scientists' knowledge of nuclear physics. A conflict would send high oil prices much higher, however, to at least $150 a barrel in one recent war game. Iran could retaliate by sinking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, attempting to block the crucial Strait of Hormuz, ordering terrorist attacks against U.S. targets worldwide and increasing its support for Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq, which have attacked American troops in the past.
Q. What's Bush's current approach?
A. The United States belatedly backed a European negotiating approach with Iran, and offered in June 2006 to talk directly with Iran as well as other incentives if it first halts uranium enrichment. Iran hasn't accepted the offer. The U.N. Security Council has passed two resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran for its nuclear work. But China, Russia and Germany are resisting further sanctions, and the United States increasingly is imposing its own financial measures and encouraging others to follow suit.
Whether sanctions will convince Iran to abandon its nuclear program is uncertain.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2007