While it has been overshadowed by a number of other Middle East issues ranging from Gaza to Egypt to Syria as 2012 winds down, the growing Iranian nuclear program still looms large over the region, and recent signs indicate that the issue might finally come to a resolution in 2013—peacefully or not.
According to the Nov. 16 quarterly report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog group, Iran’s work on the deep underground nuclear site—Fordo, near the holy city of Qom—is nearly complete. The site now has the full nuclear capacity of 2,784 centrifuges, an increase of 644 since the previous IAEA report in August.
Iran expert Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC), told JNS.org that the latest report “confirms that the nuclear program is continuing and maturing.”
The November IAEA report said only 696 of the 2,784 Fordo centrifuges are actually enriching uranium. Berman, however, warned that while the regime appears to be moving a bit slower on enrichment, it could “weaponize” at any time.
If Iran does “weaponize,” how powerful would its bomb be? Computer simulations run by Iranian scientists reveal a nuclear weapon with more than three times the power of the bomb America dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II, the Associated Press reported Nov. 28. The AP cited a diagram it obtained from anonymous officials featuring a bell curve whose highest point is 50 kilotons (a measurement unit indicating nuclear force), compared with the Hiroshima bomb’s power of 15 kilotons.
Many experts are also concerned with Iran’s refusal to allow IAEA inspectors into the Parchin military complex. The IAEA believes that Iran may have conducted “explosives tests” as part of its nuclear program at the site, its report said. Satellite photographs indicate that Iran has been working quickly to clean the site up, while delaying the IAEA’s access.
In addition to its nuclear activities, Iran has also been working to develop its ballistic missile program. According to the U.S. Institute of Peace, Iran has the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East. Currently, Iran possesses the capability to strike anywhere in the region, including Israel. Iran is also working to develop its solid fuel missile capable of being fired within minutes. known as the Sajjil missiles. According to experts, the Sajjil missile class is the most likely missile to be paired with a nuclear weapon.
Despite these developments, U.S. President Barack Obama remains confident in diplomacy. In a White House news conference in mid-November, Obama reiterated that sentiment.
“I very much want to see a diplomatic resolution to the problem,” Obama said.
Obama added that in the coming months, he will push to renew dialogue, which has been stalled since the last round of nuclear talks in June.
“I will try to make a push in the coming months to see if we can open up a dialogue between Iran and not just us, but the international community to see if we can get this thing resolved,” he said.
Obama’s push toward restarting diplomacy may be the reason why the administration was quietly opposed to the latest round of sanctions targeting Iran’s energy and shipping sectors, approved by the U.S. Senate on Nov. 30.
A National Security Council memo issued before the vote said the sanctions were “unnecessary, duplicative and threaten to confuse and undermine provisions in current law,” according to the AP.
“There’s an appetite for talks within the [Obama] administration. The administration is still very much in the mode for diplomacy,” Berman said.
One of the reasons why diplomacy is still a viable option is the dramatic effect sanctions have had on the Iranian economy. In October, Iran’s currency, which had already been declining for years, plummeted nearly 40 percent.
Meanwhile, a powerful European and American oil embargo has forced Iranian oil output to its lowest monthly levels in decades, significantly curtailing exports as well, according to the International Energy Agency and the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
As a result of the pressure, there are signs that Iran is ready to return to negotiations. The New York Times reported before the Nov. 6 U.S. elections that the U.S. and Iran were prepared to enter bilateral talks. Both sides quickly denied the report.
Nevertheless, Israeli-Iranian expert Meir Javedanfar, author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran, told JNS.org that he thinks the majority of regime officials in Iran are coming around to the idea of talks with the U.S.
“More people in the Iranian regime are coming to that conclusion. Keeping the status quo could be very costly for the regime,” Javedanfar said.
However, Javedanfar pointed out that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains strongly opposed to dialogue.
“The revolution has been a failure, one of the last things that he [Khamenei] has is the American hatred,” Javedanfar said. “If he shows any compromise over the nuclear issue, that sends signs of weakness and America might ask for more.”
Nevertheless, Javedanfar is optimistic that the current impasse will be broken, saying he feels the U.S. will make a “major offer” sometime in 2013 that could pressure Iran into brokering a deal on American terms.
For now, despite signs of cracking within the Iranian regime, it remains to be seen whether or not the regime is fully prepared to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully.
“Nothing is more important to the Iranian regime than its survival,” Javedanfar added.