Nuclear experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency are holding talks in Tehran this week, aimed at gaining greater access to Iran's nuclear facilities. The results of the talks are not known. But the issue has taken on greater urgency with a new report by a leading U.S. newspaper that Iran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons. Most governments in the region do not want Iran to have nuclear weapons, but the idea is more popular among some of the region's people.
Iran says its nuclear program is designed only for the peaceful production of electricity. But the United States, and other members of the international community have accused Iran of running a secret nuclear weapons program. A report issued by the IAEA in June criticized Iran for concealing many of its nuclear activities.
On Monday, the Los Angeles Times newspaper published a front-page story saying Iran appears to be close to developing the ability to construct a nuclear bomb. The newspaper said there is strong evidence that Iran's commercial program to build nuclear power plants is designed to conceal its plans to become what it called the world's next nuclear power.
The newspaper cited confidential reports and interviews with intelligence sources as the basis of its findings, including a French report suggesting Iran is close to having enriched uranium or plutonium for a nuclear weapon.
An expert on Iran, Pakinam al-Shakawry, who teaches political science at Cairo University, says it is likely Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons because, she says, any government in the region would do so if it had the capability.
"I think any regional power now would like to have nuclear power," she said. "Regarding the new American strategy in the region, having a nuclear weapon is kind of a form of protection against any American potential aggression on you. So, I think it's logical that any regional power - not only Iran - will seek to have its own nuclear bomb or nuclear weapon."
The Arab world does not share the deep distrust of Tehran's nuclear program felt in the United States and many other countries. In fact, according to political analyst Mohammad Kamal, who also teaches political science at Cairo University, Iran would likely increase its popularity among Muslims in the region if it developed a nuclear bomb.
"It might add to Iran's ideological appeal," said Mr. Kamal. "People will perceive it as the country that is capable of defending the interests of the Muslims. So it might emerge as the leader of the Muslim world because of its possession of nuclear weapons."
Mr. Kamal says Iran does not have what he called an evil image in the Arab world and, in fact, says many Arabs view Iran as a friendly country.
One group that says it would welcome Iran's development of nuclear weapons is Hezbollah, an organization on the State Department's list of terrorist groups.
Iran has long supported Hezbollah's efforts to aid the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel.
A member of both Hezbollah and the Lebanese parliament, Abdullah el-Kassir, believes Iranian possession of nuclear weapons would create greater stability in the region. Mr. el-Kassir said Iranian possession of such a weapon would provide Islamic countries with a powerful counter-balance to Israel's nuclear capabilities and would lead to a greater sense of security throughout the region.
But not everyone agrees. Sami Baroudi, who heads the political science department at Lebanese-American University in Beirut, says that if Iran develops nuclear weapons, it will likely be for the defense of Iran, not the entire region.
"They think this is sort of a balance to Israel having nuclear weapons," said Mr. Baroudi, "but I don't think anyone here expects Iran to extend its nuclear umbrella over Lebanon and Syria. They will think that those weapons are for Iran's own defense and not part of the political game in the Middle East."
Mr. Baroudi says while the general population of the Arab world might favor Iranian development of nuclear weapons, the governments of countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and most of the Gulf states would be adamantly opposed.
Political scientist Mohammad al-Musfir of Qatar University agrees that no Gulf state would welcome such a development.
"I think the Gulf states will oppose that Iran has nuclear weapons and they will call for the region, the Indian Ocean and the Gulf and the Middle East to be free of these nuclear weapons at this stage," Mr. al-Musfir said.
And Israel would view Iranian development of nuclear weapons as a threat. In 1981, Israel bombed and destroyed a nuclear reactor that was under construction in Iraq. But according to Mohammad Saleh, the Cairo bureau chief for the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Hayat, there are several reasons why Israel should not fear a nuclear attack from Iran.
For instance, Mr. Saleh said, a nuclear strike against Israel would cost the lives of Palestinians and Muslims living in and around Israel. He also pointed to the fact that despite the deep-rooted disputes between India and Pakistan, neither country has ever used its nuclear weapons. And finally, Mr. Saleh said if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons, it would face international sanctions because, in 1970, it signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty promising not to develop such weapons.
The Los Angeles Times quotes experts as saying Iran may be just two or three years away from producing its first nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Agency is taking the lead in the effort to make sure that does not happen.