alpha fetoprotein A SECRET uranium-enrichment establish is discovered, built in a mountainside on a well-defended military compound outside the city of Qom. It is a clear transgress of nuclear safeguards agreements and promises made when Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ( NPT ). Iran brazens it out, trying to bamboozle inspectors into believing there is nothing more. It rebelliously declares its “ nuclear rights ” to this “ civilian ” effort with a aim, it says, that is nothing more baleful than providing electricity to Iranians .
To diplomats from America, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, it is a depressingly familiar fib. Iran ‘s aggressive shrug at the discovery of the Fordow plant—reported by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency ( IAEA ), the UN ‘s nuclear defender, to be in an “ advanced state of structure ”, with everything but the centrifuges installed—is precisely the one played out after the expose of its other once secret enrichment plant, at Natanz, in 2002 .
Russia and China, hitherto most loath to contemplate rigid sanctions on Iran for its nuclear defiance, are now wondering what to do following. “ We will not stand aside ” if others agree on sanctions, said a senior russian diplomat this workweek. Diplomats from the six are to meet in mid-December to start taking livestock.

What has changed in the intervene seven years is far from reassuring. Iran is much further on with its enrichment plans. Natanz has some 8,000 centrifuge enrichment machines ( out of a plan 54,000 ), though only about half are spinning with uranium gas. It has accumulated a sprout of 5 % enriched uranium which, if Iran breaks out and enriches it far to bomb-usable 90 % ( easy compared with achieving the first 5 % ), would be enough for a turkey, and will soon be enough for two. Inspectors, interim, suspect that Iran may have other mystery sites. They have plenty of evidence to suggest that Iran has done warhead development, besides other experiments whose function can alone be to build a nuclear weapon, or enable one to be assembled at speed .
But Iran refuses to answer their questions, and now threatens to increase its enrichment campaign tenfold. An overstate sport, possibly : it appears to be running shortstop of uranium ore, american samoa well as high-strength steel for the aforethought expansion at Natanz. But it is moving ahead fast .
Some in Tehran are even hinting that the area could pull out of the NPT wholly. Being in or out “ makes no deviation ”, said Ali Larijani, the loudspeaker of fantan and a former nuclear negotiator. But he was immediately contradicted by the head of Iran ‘s nuclear agency, who said that the alone reason to pull out of the treaty would be to develop nuclear weapons, and that would be a “ sin ”. The very threat of it brings the populace a dance step closer to the catastrophic choice that France ‘s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, laid out in 2007 : an iranian nuclear bombard, or the bombard of Iran .
The outstretched hand
This class, it was hoped, would be different. With a fresh american president ready to be compromising, diplomats had tried evening harder to draw Iran into talks. When Iran recently announced that it needed 20 % enrich uranium to replace the fuel rods in a research reactor that produces medical isotopes ( and was built by America in Tehran in the 1960s, when times were better ), a hand was proposed involving America, Russia, France and the IAEA. Most of Iran ‘s own low-enriched uranium ( LEU ), for which it has no virtual civilian use because it has no working nuclear-power reactors that could burn it, would be taken out of the area, enriched in Russia, made into fuel rods in France and then returned to Iran, all under the auspices of the IAEA. Removing most of Iran ‘s uranium stock would create a breathing space, if entirely of a few months, for more talks .
This was the beginning footprint to seeing whether a broader deal could be struck. Under such an agreement, Iran would end the partially of its nuclear work with military electric potential until assurance was restored. In hark back it would get respective benefits, including improved political and deal ties, discussions about regional security and even co-operation on advance civilian nuclear technologies .
Iran ‘s provocative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at first seemed tempt. He saw the deal as a mean of legitimising Iran ‘s own enrichment program. But it fell disgusting of Iran ‘s opaque and precarious politics, all the more volatile since Mr Ahmadinejad ‘s rigged re-election in June. The president found himself outflanked by both reformers and hardliners, all denouncing his readiness to export Iran ‘s hard-won enriched uranium. The consider collapsed. On December 2nd Mr Ahmadinejad announced that Iran would obtain 20 % enrich uranium all by itself, by producing it inside the country .
The failure of the fuel batch and the revelations at Qom have particularly disappointed the outgoing head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei. Mr ElBaradei points out that the Qom locate is not only illegal, but besides “ reduces confidence ” in Iran ‘s claim not to have early secret facilities. For Fordow raises new questions, including where the uranium for such a secret operation would come from. There are two possible answers. It could come through the diversion of stocks of low-enriched uranium from Natanz, which could then be cursorily spun into the bomb-grade sort. Or another secret plant could prepare uranium hexafluoride ( UF6 ), the compound that is whirl and enriched as a boast in the centrifuges, from Iran ‘s uranium ore. This can be mined or imported without the inspectors know, because Iran has refused to give them the powers they need. Iran says Fordow was alone an attack to hedge its bets in case Natanz was destroyed. But it increases suspicions that Iran was seeking a break-out choice .
Talking sanctions
The IAEA ‘s circuit board voted 25-3—crucially, with the support of both Russia and China—to reprimand Iran for its latest safeguards breaches and to refer the matter, yet again, to the UN Security Council. even before the Qom revelations, the six had agreed to give Iran until the end of the year before deciding what to do future. possibly it was always hopeless to think that Iran, with its long record of cheating and playing for time, was ever going to be dangerous about reaching a deal. The question is whether America ‘s year of undertake engagement will now make it easier to convince Russia, China and other sceptics of the need for stiff sanctions .
Both Russia and China have already signed up for a string of limit UN-imposed sanctions on Iran. These have indeed far by and large target members of the Revolutionary Guard and its offshoots and the companies they control, which are thought to be involved in nuclear-related trade. But both countries have been careful to exempt the things they most value in their trade with Iran—items which, if included, would make Tehran take notice .
 environmental protection agency For Russia, that has included the sale of conventional weapons—although reports that it has refused to supply Iran with advance S-300 air defences, despite an earlier agreement to do sol, would seem to be born out by irani complaints. Since 1995 Russia has besides been helping Iran to complete a nuclear-power reactor at Bushehr. America had at beginning opposed the project. It changed tack when Russia agreed not lone to supply the necessary fuel rods, but besides to take back the spend fuel. This project has since been cited as validation that outsiders are not trying to deprive Iran of civilian nuclear power. Yet there have been repeated delays, and the reactor will immediately not start up until March. With Iran in repeat violation of nuclear safeguards, a ban on nuclear trade wind looks attractive to some .
China, excessively, has big commercial interests in Iran, with investing contracts estimated at some $ 120 billion. Iran is already one of China ‘s biggest suppliers of anoint. The government in Beijing will be loth to put those supplies at risk—though Saudi Arabia and some of the smaller Gulf states, softly keen to keep up pressure on Iran, could help China find option supplies .
Some european countries inactive trade heavily with Iran, besides, although many companies have started to draw back. Government-backed credits are harder to come by, and ties to irani banks have been cut. But this has by and large been done under pressure from America. Faced with the choice of continuing to deal with their iranian counterparts, or retaining introduction to the much more lucrative american fiscal markets, most banks have backed away. Yet in the Gulf itself, adenine well as in Asia, Iran has found circuitous routes to get the imports it needs, including gasoline .
It is not just commercial interests that give Russia and China pause when it comes to devising sturdy new sanctions. Neither has a lot truck with sanctions anyhow, since both have suffered from them in the past. Both resented America ‘s unilateral intervention in Iraq in 2003. And Russia has no particular wish to help America and Iran end their confrontation, since their unmanageable relations always since the shah ‘s overrule in 1979 have opened a door to russian influence in the area .
Both Russia and China have insisted until nowadays that there has been no hard testify that Iran is doing anything amiss. Neither thinks Iran ‘s missiles are aimed at them. rather Russia has been lament to maintain good relations with a potentially awkward neighbor that could stir up trouble, but by and large has n’t, in Russia ‘s own fluid border regions.

Yet Iran ‘s own actions make this hands-off scheme increasingly indefensible. The close Iran seems to get to the nuclear ambition it claims not to have, the more skittish its other neighbours have become. indeed, Arab states seem far more anxious about a persian turkey than they have been for the past 40 years about Israel ‘s make bold nuclear armory. It was the threat of broad proliferation in the Middle East, and potentially beyond, american samoa well as the risk that Israel could act alone if nothing was done to rein in Iran, that was cited recently by two aged american officials in Beijing to try to persuade China to shift on sanctions .
Time for a strike?
A bipartisan american report, by two ex-senators and a erstwhile air-force general, says the United States must immediately plan overtly for military action, if only to strengthen statesmanship. Charles Wald, the cosmopolitan, says the Iranians “ honestly do n’t believe that we would do anything against them ”. America is trying to woo the Muslim universe, draw down in Iraq and build up in Afghanistan. As Admiral Mike Mullen, the chair of America ‘s joint chiefs of staff, said on November 4th : “ The last thing in the world that I need mighty now is a third base conflict—as we ‘re trying to work our means through these other two. ”
Israel ‘s threats of military action might be more credible than America ‘s. In 1981 it bombed Saddam Hussein ‘s Osirak nuclear reactor, and in 2007 it bombed a suspect syrian nuclear reactor under construction. As a solution, Israel likes to argue, the global owes the jewish department of state a huge debt of gratitude. ( By the same token, possibly Saddam should be thanked for bombing Iran ‘s nuclear reactor at Bushehr in the 1980s. ) last class Israel carried out a long-distance military air exercise over Greece that looked like a rehearsal for action in Iran. In June a missile-carrying Israeli submarine ostentatiously sailed through the Suez Canal. And recently Israel and America conducted large-scale missile-defence exercises to demonstrate their ability to fend off possible retaliation by Iran .
What could provoke military action, whether by America or by Israel ? There are respective possibilities. One might be an irani decision to expel nuclear inspectors or withdraw from the NPT, as North Korea did in 2003 before making and testing atomic fail. Another cause might be the growth of Iran ‘s stockpile of LEU to the compass point where it has enough fissile material to break out of the NPT and test more than one turkey. Yet another factor might be the delivery of those russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, which would make bombing much more difficult. arguably the biggest trigger would be the conviction that delicacy has reached an blind alley .
Acquiring nuclear weapons requires three elements : fissile substantial ( such as highly enrich uranium, HEU, or plutonium ), a delivery system and a warhead. The enrichment plants at Natanz, Qom and possibly elsewhere give Iran an early road to HEU. A planned heavy-water nuclear reactor at Arak will produce large quantities of plutonium as a by-product, but will not be completed for some years .
Iran has been working on a range of ballistic missiles. Its liquid-fuel Shahab-3, with a compass of 1,300km ( 810 miles ) or more, can already reach Israel. In May it tested the 2,000-km Sejjil projectile. As a solid-fuel skyrocket, this could be fired at curtly notice from mobile launchers. Atomic bomb calorimeter can be put on aircraft or even smuggled in ships. But missiles are the quickest and most dependable way to deliver them .
finally, Iran has besides worked on fitting a bomb calorimeter inside a projectile cone. IAEA inspectors have found evidence that Iran had designs to make uranium hemispheres ( used in warheads ) and had experimented with ultra-fast triggers that would be needed to “ implode ” these and set off a nuclear explosion. A contentious american intelligence assessment in 2007 said Iran ‘s employment on warheads had stopped in 2003, although Israel, Britain and France challenge this. A secret annex to an IAEA report earlier this year reckoned that Iran “ has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a feasible implosion nuclear device based on HEU ”. It had besides worked on fitting a bombard on a projectile warhead .
So the main constraint on Iran going nuclear is the handiness of fissile material. If it decides to break out of the NPT it might need a few months to build a turkey, but would risk military action ; if it decides to sneak out clandestinely it might take years. Iran may so far choose to stop “ one turn of the screwdriver ” unretentive of a fail .
Iran has learned from Israel ‘s previous actions. It has dispersed and buried its nuclear facilities to make them harder to strike. In contrast with the “ Two Minutes over Baghdad ” of Israel ‘s raid on Osiraq, there is no easy injection. If anything, it has become hard to hobble Iran as time has passed. The discovery of Qom, angstrom well as Iran ‘s plan to build ten more enrichment plants, suggests there may be more hidden sites .
Two months over Iran?
possibly the best opportunity to halt Iran ‘s program by military means would have been an early hit on the Isfahan conversion plant. This turns uranium ore into UF6, the essential preliminary mistreat before enrichment. It is above land, and therefore more vulnerable to attack. It was the first region of the nuclear program to be restarted by Iran in 2005, and has since produced enough UF6 for scores of bombs .
A report concluding month by the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank in New York, suggests that Israel could limit itself to three targets : Isfahan, Arak and Natanz. But to strike the centrifuges at Natanz, buried under 23 metres of dirt and cement, it would have to use several bunker-busting bombs in “ burrow ” manner : dropping bombs repeatedly on the same crater to dig down to the protected centrifuges. The report reckons that three bombs per “ target point ” would give a 70 % gamble of success .
 still, the repeat sorties and loitering clock needed to achieve this would credibly require suppressing Iran ‘s breeze defences, which in turns requires more sorties, possibly hundreds. Israel would be operating at the restrict of its range, even with air-to-air refuel, and would probably have to cross the air space of other countries. It might not be able to sustain such an operation. And would attacking a few sites actually crimp Iran ‘s nuclear program, or merely drive it entirely out of sight ?
General Wald, for one, suggests that Israeli military action may be little more than a “ pinprick ”. This may be galling for Israelis, but few would contest that the American air force, with planes deployed closer to Iran and the ability to bring in aircraft carriers, could do a much more thorough job. America is improbable to escape blame for Israeli military legal action, so it might adenine well join in, say some. A bigger american operation could go after more nuclear sites and take out some of Iran ‘s means of retaliation : missile sites and naval bases. It might even want to strike a blow against the revolutionist Guards. This scenario starts to look like a major air war ; closer to two months over Iran than two minutes.

Iran could do much damage to the West in render. It could fire missiles, possibly tipped with chemical or biological weapons, at american bases or Israel. It could attack oil installations in the Gulf, and try to choke off the flow of anoint through the Strait of Hormuz. The american dark blue thinks any such disturbance would be temp. But fighting in the restrict waters of the Gulf makes warships more vulnerable to surprise attacks and anti-shipping missiles .
many Muslims would regard a military hit on Iran as another war against Islam. Iran could stoke anti-american insurgencies across its borders in Iraq and Afghanistan. It could besides prod its Lebanese proxy, Hizbullah, and the palestinian Hamas motion to resume their missile war against Israel. Israel sporadically intercepts iranian weapons shipments to Lebanon and Gaza ; the latest, containing hundreds of tonnes of rockets, missiles, mortars, grenades and anti-tank weapons allegedly destined for Hizbullah, was seized last month off Cyprus. Iran, possibly through Hizbullah, could besides resort to terrorist tactics around the worldly concern .
so which will it be : a war with Iran, or a nuclear-armed Iran ? Short of a revolution that sweeps away the irani regime—ushering in one that agrees, like post-apartheid South Africa, to give up its nuclear technology—sanctions may offer the alone hope of avoiding the atrocious choice .
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