Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate for the US presidency in 2008, used to express his position on a nuclear Iran with a clear and decisive statement: “There is only one scenario worse than military action in Iran, and that is a nuclear-armed Iran.”

The reality is obviously much more complex than that. For the past 10 years or so, thousands of intelligence experts, military commanders, experienced diplomats, nuclear scientists and world leaders have been trying to understand where the Iranian regime is headed. Despite this, there has still not been a decisive response to most of the questions that have been raised since 2002, when the Iranian opposition exposed secret nuclear sites that had been built under the noses of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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There is one question that is no longer being asked: Does Iran plan to develop nuclear arms, or can we trust its declarations that its nuclear program is civilian in nature? No one still believes that Iran would get itself entangled in diplomatic isolation, put itself at risk of preventative military attack and bring down upon itself harsh economic sanctions – all just to produce electricity. There is no economic justification for producing nuclear energy at a time when Iran has enormous sources of crude oil and natural gas.

The consistent Iranian rejection of compromise proposals, including the offer of civilian nuclear cooperation with Western countries, has strengthened the world’s recognition that Iran’s efforts are not aimed at attaining nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes. Even the periodic IAEA reports – which for a long time, during the tenure of the previous director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, demonstrably refrained from pointing an accusing finger at Iran – have become more focused and stringent, the more Iran refuses to answer the IAEA’s penetrating questions. After Yukiya Amano’s appointment as director-general, an IAEA report explicitly raised the suspicion that “Iran conducted or continues to conduct secret activities to produce enough material for a nuclear missile.”

Nowadays, it is not only Israel and the US that share the understanding that Iran is striving to develop an atomic weapon. Almost all world leaders do so, including leaders of Arab countries who lose sleep over the possibility of an extremist Iran equipped with nuclear arms.

AND YET, even though a universal consensus has been reached with regard to where Iran is headed, two essential questions remain.

1. Do the sanctions leveled against Iran have enough bite to bring its nuclear program to a halt?

2. Should sanctions fail, what is the final date beyond which it will no longer be possible to harm Iran’s nuclear program in a way that will cause it substantial setbacks?

The answers to these questions are heatedly disputed. With regard to the effectiveness of the sanctions, there are those who believe that the Iranian regime cannot allow for such a long-term economic assault, one that could eventually undermine its very survival. Others are convinced that for the sake of attaining the lofty goal of joining the prestigious nuclear-armed club, the ayatollahs’ regime will continue to demonstrate unwavering perseverance.

Concerning the exact status of the Iranian nuclear program, the number of answers is identical to the number of those answering. Indeed, this is not an easy matter to decipher. It’s not enough to calculate the amount of uranium that is enriched per centrifuge, per day. To realistically evaluate the strategic aims of Iran, you must provide solutions to a slew of dilemmas some of which, it is reasonable to assume, the Iranian leadership itself is still deliberating over.

For example, will Iran agree, under the pressure of sanctions, to a deal that it has rejected in the past, in which it will export a substantial amount of enriched uranium in return for the possible internationally recognized legitimacy of its nuclear program?

Another unknown: Will Iran refrain from totally breaking the rules, and not enrich uranium at a military level for the time being, but will attain the status of a “threshold state,” which has the ability to decide on any given date if it wishes to create an atomic bomb in a very short time?

And another mystery – is Iran running a secret nuclear facility, similar to the one recently discovered near Qom?

There are no clear-cut answers to any of these questions. For this reason, even the most respected intelligence agencies are having difficulty coming to an agreement over the “point of no return” of the Iranian nuclear program.

Over the past year, US President Obama has sharpened his remarks on the Iranian nuclear issue. His statements still have not come close to the forcefulness of McCain’s. Despite this, when the leader of the biggest superpower publicly declares that he is “determined to prevent a nuclear Iran,” one can assume that he is not making empty promises.

Yet the biggest problem of all still remains: As long as there is still uncertainty regarding both the effectiveness of the sanctions as an alternative to a military confrontation, and the date of the completion of the Iranian nuclear program, the US government will hesitate before translating harsh rhetoric into decisive military action.

The writer is a former Kadima MK.

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