In testimony before Congress in late January, the US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said Iran is "keeping open the option" to develop nuclear weapons. But, he added, "we do not know" if it will. The United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in its latest report last November, detailed alleged weapons-related work for the first time, but said "systematic" work was halted in 2003.
Tehran has long claimed it wants only to make nuclear power peacefully, and in Iran, embracing "nuclear rights" enjoys wide, popular support because it blends national pride and scientific prowess. Publicly, Iranian rulers profess to reject atomic weapons, and at the highest levels they evoke Islamic religious reasons to oppose all weapons of mass destruction.
Yet analysts and diplomats note that Iran does have many reasons to develop at least a "breakout" capability – the ability to assemble a bomb quickly should it want to. Tehran has watched modern history unfold around it and no doubt has drawn its own conclusions. Acquiring nuclear weapons helped preserve regimes in North Korea and Pakistan, for instance. But in Iraq and Libya, two nonnuclear countries, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi were deposed. The Iranian media, in fact, tut-tutted last year that Mr. Qaddafi's fatal error was relinquishing his secret nuclear weapons program in 2004.