The International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] confirmed Monday that Iran has started enriching uranium up to 20 percent at the underground nuclear facility at Fordow, near the city of Qom. Fordow, buried deep in a mountain, is protected from aerial strikes. Iran's move prompted countries such as the United States, Britain, France and Germany to express concerns that Iran is moving closer to achieving a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
What's at Stake
Some scientists say Iran can use a stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to produce enough weapons-grade uranium needed for a nuclear weapon between two to six months. This would require at least 150 kgs of 20 percent enriched uranium, according to the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center (PDF). An IAEA November 2011 report found that Iran had 79.7 kgs of 20 percent enriched uranium. At the current production rate of 3.2 kg/month (PDF), the BPC projects that Iran will have enough 20 percent enriched uranium to produce one nuclear weapon sometime after December 2012. These estimates widely vary among scientists.
The latest IAEA revelations come just days after the United States signed into law its toughest sanctions to date on Iran's financial sector, including its central bank. Tensions between Iran and the West have been climbing since the IAEA report in November citing the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program. Earlier this month, Tehran's threat to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz in response to escalating sanctions from the West increased fears of a military clash between Iran and the United States. Adding to the strains is Iran's death sentence for an Iranian-American man it has accused of being a CIA spy. On Wednesday, Tehran reported the killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist, the fourth such attack reported in two years, and blamed it on the United States and Israel.
Iran's enrichment activities at Fordow will likely result in tighter economic sanctions from the West; the EU is mulling a phased-in oil embargo. U.S. Treasury Scretary Timothy Geithner is visiting China and Japan this week to persuade them to reduce, if not stop, their oil imports. But so far, Beijing remains wary of cutting off a major source of its oil supply and instead, has called for intensified negotiations.
Despite causing significant hurt to Iran's economy, sanctions have failed to alter Iran's nuclear strategy. Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution says the new U.S. sanctions are counterproductive. "The more Washington corners Tehran, the higher the value of a nuclear deterrent becomes in the eyes of the leadership," she writes in Foreign Affairs. Daniel Drezner of ForeignPolicy.com says the real motive of the sanctions is to open up the possibility for regime change, but doubts they will achieve that.
Some experts like CFR's Matthew Kroenig have advocateda preventive military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities as the least bad option. But CFR's Micah Zenko questions questions whether the United States has sufficient intelligence to prove with certainty that Iran will build a bomb.
On January 8, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told CBS's Face the Nation that while Iran is trying to develop a nuclear capability, it is not yet building a bomb. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said on the same program that U.S. planning underway includes an assessment of "the risks associated with any kind of military option."
For now, the Obama administration is rallying its international partners to impose tougher sanctions that target Iran's economy. Some analysts say a diplomatic solution is the only answer. But even that is fraught with difficulties, given the domestic situation inside Iran -- a divided regime and an ideologically rigid Supreme Leader -- notes CNN's Fareed Zakaria.
Jordan Weissmann of The Atlantic looks at whether Iran sanctions will spark an international oil crisis.
The recent assassinations of nuclear scientists on the streets of Tehran and "the sudden frequency of 'accidents' at various factories and Revolutionary Guards bases has done nothing to change the minds of either government officials or the general public about the nuclear program," writes Hooman Majd in Foreign Affairs.
This CFR Crisis Guide offers a range of expert opinions on six possible policy options to address Iran's nuclear program including sanctions, diplomacy, covert action and a preventive strike.
This article first appeared on CFR.org.