Would nuclear arms bulk up a bully, or be a step toward stability by creating a stalemate?
What will happen when Iran acquires nuclear weapons?
Talk in the West about Iran's atomic ambitions is often punctuated with the word "apocalypse." As the Soviet Union was once vilified, so Iran is today.
The Islamic Republic is accused of exporting terrorism, is the target (along with Iraq) of an American policy of "dual containment" and sanctions, and is feared by nearly all its Mideast neighbors.
President Hashemi Rafsanjani declared in June that Iran "hates nuclear and chemical weapons." But Western sources are convinced that Iran wants nuclear weapons to counter Israel's nuclear monopoly in the region.
Opinion is divided over the result: Would Iran with nukes mean an explosion of terrorism and blackmail - or a new cold-war-style stability?
So far, American pressure on Iran's nuclear suppliers seems to have forced Iran to adjust its suspected timetable for a bomb - once thought to be 2000. Experts now say Iran is unlikely to acquire nuclear weapons for eight or 10 years. Well before then, Iran is expected to have ballistic missiles that could hit targets as far away as Israel.
"Yes, some say we must have the atomic bomb," says an Iranian official. "But we can't afford it. The political consequences are too much trouble, and it's expensive."
Iran has said it plans to build "about 10" nuclear power plants. But many question Iran's need for nuclear energy when it has the second-largest oil and gas reserves in the world.
Western analysts find several motives for a bomb. "Iran ... wants to be among the countries that count," says a Western diplomat. "They don't accept that the bomb is for India and Pakistan and not for them."
Iraq's defeat in 1991 may also have persuaded Iranian officials that conventional strength will not deter Western intervention. "They realize that even with all the faith and fanaticism, they are nothing without these weapons," he says.
Israel - which covertly acquired elements of its own nuclear arsenal, including advanced US nuclear design technology, according to the London-based monthly Jane's Intelligence Review - has been the first to sound the alarm, strongly hinting it might strike Iran's nuclear facilities, just as it hit Iraq's reactor with warplanes in 1981.