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An Iranian Nuclear Escalation?

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The UN's nuclear agency has issued its strongest judgment to date that Iran is seeking to develop a nuclear weapon. The much-anticipated IAEA report, released November 8, has triggered a debate in the United States, Israel, and other Western powers over the best action to halt Iran's nuclear program. Iran has rejected the report (Reuters), calling it "politically motivated."

What's at Stake?

A nuclear-armed Iran has aroused fears in many Western capitals of a Mideast power shift and a new arms race. Iran's support for militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah adds to concerns over possible proliferation of nuclear weapons or technology. Israel, a nuclear-armed state outside the international nonproliferation regime, sees a nuclear Iran as an existential threat and could mount preventive strikes similar to those it conducted against Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities. Tehran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

What's the Debate?

The urgency of action remains a matter of dispute among Iran analysts. Experts disagree over how many nuclear weapons Iran could develop if current stockpiles of uranium are further enriched -- the estimates range between two to four weapons.

Estimates also vary over how soon Iran could get a bomb. In June 2010, then-CIA director Leon Panetta said within two years (CBS). Joseph Cirincione and Elise Connor at the Ploughshares Fund estimate three to five years (ForeignPolicy). But it could be sooner, says Mark Fitzpatrick of IISS (PDF), given Iran's efforts to increase the number of centrifuges in its facilities at Natanz and Fordow and add advanced centrifuges to produce enriched uranium faster. At the same time, Iran's nuclear program has suffered setbacks due to a 2010 Stuxnet cyberattack, assassinations of several top Iranian nuclear scientists, and sanctions that have limited access to nuclear materials and equipment. Despite these setbacks, David Albright and Christina Walrond of ISIS write that Iran's nuclear program is capable of continuing on a trajectory to produce weapons-grade uranium for nuclear weapons.

What Are the Policy Options?

The United States may use the IAEA report as leverage to persuade other countries to expand and tighten sanctions against Iran, reports the Associated Press. But any such effort at the UN Security Council -- including a ban on Iranian oil exports -- is likely to be blocked by veto-wielding members China and Russia, commentator Juan Cole notes. Washington too, is unlikely to push such a ban, which could send oil prices soaring and, "in the worst case, cause a confrontation at sea over a blockade," writes the New York Times' David Sanger.

In recent days, the Israeli media has reported (Haaretz) that the Israeli government is debating a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. The merits of a military strike have also featured prominently in the debate within the United States; while the White House has said the option is on the table, it stressed ahead of the report on November 7 that it would focus on a diplomatic approach to press Iran. Iran's vulnerability to such an attack may have a limited window (Guardian). Iran has begun moving centrifuges from its enrichment facility at Natanz to a mountain facility at Fordow, which is harder to target through airstrikes.

Fitzpatrick of the IISS says a combination of U.S. policy tools (PDF) -- including sanctions, threat of a preemptive military strike, intrusive inspections by the IAEA, and efforts to engage Tehran -- could prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Background Materials:

Crisis Guide: Iran, CFR.org
Assessing Iran's Nuclear Program, Arms Control Association
After Iran Gets the Bomb, Foreign Affairs
U.S. Strategic Competition with Iran, U.S. Institute of Peace

This article first appeared on CFR.org.