International pressure is mounting to convince Iran not to build a nuclear weapon. Iran has responded with denials, tough talk and an intensified effort to enrich uranium. But some analysts believe it is still possible for the West to persuade Iranian leaders to abandon their alleged nuclear weapons ambitions.
Iranian officials speak defiantly about their right to build a nuclear weapon, but also say they have no intention of doing so.
Experts say Iran is using machines, however, to enrich the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon - uranium - to near weapons-grade purity.
After European Union foreign ministers recently agreed to pressure Iran by banning purchases of its oil, the group’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton scoffed at Iranian claims of peaceful intentions.
“If you look at the low-enriched uranium that they have, you have to ask a very simple question, ‘What’s it for?’ And when I ask that question, as I do repeatedly, I don’t get an answer,” said Ashton.
Mark Fitzpatrick at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies said Iran has put itself in a position to build a nuclear bomb, but not right away.
“If Iran wanted to produce a nuclear weapon, I still think it would take them over a year to do so,” said Fitzpatrick.
Iran’s nuclear facilities are reported to be at certain sites, shown in satellite photos released by an Iranian opposition group in the United States. But experts say, what is really worrisome is that Iran is now able to enrich uranium more quickly, and to a higher level, and is working harder to hide its nuclear facilities.
“Iran is moving some of its enrichment operations into a well-defended facility inside a mountain at Fordo, near the holy city of Qom. Once centrifuges are enriching uranium inside that mountain facility, they are largely out of reach of conventional attack,” said Fitzpatrick.
Western officials say they do not want to take military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
They leave the possibility open, though, as U.S. President Barack Obama did during his State of the Union address.
“Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal," said Obama.
But the president quickly added that if Iran abandons its alleged nuclear weapons plan and allows international inspections to prove it, the country can “rejoin the community of nations.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency is sending a delegation to Iran to renew talks. At the U.S. mission to the IAEA in Vienna, Jennifer Hall-Godfrey told VOA via Skype the talks present a chance to avoid more sanctions or possible military action.
“The director-general [of the IAEA] has asked for constructive meetings and we would also like to see that this is a substantive conversation, not another conversation about when to talk, but actually beginning to address the questions and the issues that the IAEA has put forth,” said Hall-Godfrey.
Analysts say they believe Iranian leaders can still be persuaded not to build nuclear weapons. They also say it may be impossible to stop them, however - even with military strikes - if they decide to go forward.