In 2003, it became clear that Iran had for years concealed an extensive nuclear program that had brought the country closer than many governments had suspected to the ability to build a bomb. But there was still dispute over exactly how advanced Iran’s program was. Last summer, a senior Israeli intelligence official predicted that Iran would have its first nuclear bomb within four years. Others, particularly in Europe, regarded the end of the decade as a more realistic date. There was also uncertainty about Iran’s nuclear aims. It seems likely that rather than attempting to build a bomb, the Iranians were assembling technology that would enable them to do so at short notice. By creating this capacity, they may have hoped to reduce their vulnerability to George Bush’s hostility toward the Islamic Republic. About one thing, international observers were unanimous: when diplomatic pressure, particularly from the US, Britain, France, and Germany, succeeded in persuading the Iranian government to call a halt to the most controversial parts of its nuclear program last October, the country was alarmingly close to producing the nuclear fuel that could be used to make a bomb.
During the Shah’s regime, Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which permits the controlled civilian, but not military, application of nuclear technology. But evidence obtained by inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, as well as Western intelligence findings, showed that Iran intended to invest at least one billion dollars, and probably much more, to become self-sufficient in the production of enriched uranium. States hostile to Iran maintained that a country that is rich in oil and gas would not have an interest in developing nuclear technology unless it wanted to make weapons.
Moreover, Iran had been building gas centrifuges—sophisticated machines that can be used for enriching uranium to the level needed to power nuclear reactors, and that can also be used to make fuel for nuclear weapons—which bore a close resemblance to a Pakistani design developed in the 1980s. Some Western intelligence officials also alleged that Iran had engaged the help of North Korean scientists to pursue advanced missile technology.
In September 2003, the IAEA delivered an ultimatum to Iran, demanding that it give up uranium enrichment, respond to requests for information, and allow agency inspectors a much freer hand to search for nuclear activities. The Iranian government then took the dramatic step of agreeing to disclose in full its nuclear activities. On October 21, it announced it would turn over previously classified documents about its nuclear program. It also agreed to sign an “additional protocol” to its existing agreement with the IAEA that would allow scientists from the agency to make intrusive spot inspections of any suspected nuclear sites. (According to the existing “safeguards agreement” which Iran accepted a few years after it signed the nonproliferation treaty in 1969, inspectors were only allowed to visit declared nuclear sites, and on advance notice. Iran’s leaders …