Underlying it all loom major questions. Would Iran, implacable foe of the US and Israel, suddenly become beyond attack, like North Korea? Would Iran and Israel settle into a decades-long regional cold war, like that between India and Pakistan? Would Iran's jittery Persian Gulf neighbors rush to become nuclear powers themselves, setting off a dangerous and irreversible new arms race?
The questions swirled as Iran signaled on Feb. 16 that it was ready with "new initiatives" to resume long-stalled talks over its nuclear program with the US and other big powers. But the Iranians were nebulous about any possible concessions to previous Western demands – demands that diplomats say have only risen higher in a US election year. Renewed chances of talks came during a week when Tehran also proclaimed new advances in nuclear technology. As a result of all this, the possibility of any political breakthrough is far from certain.
It is not a fait accompli, of course, that Iran will build a bomb, even though it sometimes seems as if it is – and many Americans believe the country already has. As recently as 2010, for instance, a CNN poll found that 71 percent of Americans believed Iran has a nuclear arsenal.
Yet American intelligence agencies agree that Tehran hasn't yet decided to go for a nuclear bomb – and that even if it chose to, it would take years to create one and the means to deliver it. Israeli intelligence is also reported to have reached the same conclusion.