Though the Iranian nuclear program has been in the headlines for much of the last decade, the past year has witnessed a deluge of contradictory information on the matter in the public domain. While the tone of the latest IAEA report released in November 2011, lent an air of legitimacy to the doom and gloom scenarios associated with the “possible military dimensions” of Tehran’s nuclear efforts, it specifically stated, as had multiple previous reports, that “the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at [Iran’s] nuclear facilities and LOFs declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement.”

While in typical fashion, those advocating for a more militant approach to Iran, seized upon the tenor of the report to push for more stringent sanctions and for preparation of a military option on Iran, others were more skeptical. Robert Kelly, formerly director of the IAEA and a member of the Iraq Action Team, cautioned against the politicization of the report, expressed concern that the evidence in the IAEA report was “sketchy,” and stated that “the way the data has been presented produces a sickly sense of déjà vu” (referring to the Agency’s misgivings on Iraq).

The American approach to the nuclear issue, which attempts to balance varying contradictory currents, has only created more confusion. Washington’s strategy toward Iran involves pursuing the following objectives: building maximum international pressure on Tehran while keeping military action a viable option should sanctions fail, preventing an impatient Israel from launching a unilateral strike on Iran, which would invariably draw in the United States, and sending amorphous signals to Tehran about the possibilities for a peaceful solution.

The uncertainty created by these contradictory approaches has noticeably eroded the unity of purpose and coherence behind U.S. strategy toward Iran. For example, while Administration officials have constantly claimed that Iran is intent on building nuclear weapons, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has stated that Iran has still not made the decision to build nuclear weapons. In prepared testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated that while “we [believe] Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons,” “we do not know . . . if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” This whirlwind of ambiguities is happening in an increasingly militarized atmosphere and amid war rhetoric to which all sides have contributed.

In such an environment, a sober picture of Iran’s nuclear efforts is badly needed. In circumstances where Israel sees the Iranian nuclear program as solely intended for weaponization, while the United States fears Iranian weaponization but openly admits that no apparent decision has been made to weaponize, and while Iran denies all attempts to weaponize but claims its nuclear efforts are solely intended for peaceful purposes, the only way to truly understand Iran’s nuclear program is to clinically examine Iran’s behavior based upon the known facts. To do this, five critical, preliminary questions need to be sketched out.

1. What Is the Nature of Iran’s Nuclear Program?

Mainstream Western thinking on the Iranian nuclear program equates Iran’s nuclear efforts with an unrelenting determination to acquire nuclear weapons. The evidence for this is, however, short on facts and long on speculation, particularly with regard to Iran’s intentions. The reason for this centers on the fact that Iran not only has a nuclear program but more importantly, a nuclear industry. The difference between the two is quite stark. For example, the nuclear programs of Pakistan, India, and Israel, from their inception, were decidedly directed at nuclear weaponization. These countries took advantage of the Atoms for Peace program, a precursor to the more formalized Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was meant to facilitate an exchange of nuclear know-how between nuclear-weapon states and the rest of the world and to halt the proliferation of nuclear weaponization at the-then current levels. However, once these states reached the point where they could produce their own nuclear weaponry indigenously, they chose to forgo the NPT and made the strategic decision to militarize their programs. In virtually every case where a state has acquired nuclear weapons, its nuclear program had little to no civilian usage. Only after weapons acquisition did some of these countries possessing atomic weapons mainstream nuclear technology for civilian use.

By contrast, in Iran’s case, a nuclear industry existed both before and after the 1979 Revolution, which has been primarily economic in nature. Having signed the NPT in 1968 and ratified it in 1970, Iran has been building an indigenous nuclear industry that includes all the technological accouterments involved in such an enterprise – from indigenous enrichment of nuclear fuel to in-country total control. The purpose of Iran’s nuclear industry has been, and continues to be, diversion of its domestic energy needs away from fossil fuels to nuclear energy.

The Iranian nuclear industry currently employs thousands of engineers, scientists, and international law experts, and is embedded within Iranian academic institutions across the country. The Revolution of 1979 and the massive social, political, technological, and industrial changes and setbacks it brought to Iran, impeded the program for roughly a generation. However, once the industry restarted, the Islamic Republic pursued the same goal, namely the total exploitation of nuclear technology for development purposes.

When one compares Iran with a country of similar population size, such as France, the economic sensibility of its nuclear goals becomes clear. According to the World Nuclear Association, France derives over 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy of which 17% comes from recycled nuclear fuel. Although Iran is a major player in the global energy sector, holding the third largest oil reserves and the second largest natural gas reserves, it has monumental problems with energy efficiency and public energy consumption. As the U.S. Energy Information Agency has stated, even though Iran is a “net exporter of electricity, increasing domestic demand has created shortfalls in supply during times of peak energy demand.”

University of Southern California Professor Muhammad Sahimi, one of the foremost experts on Iran’s nuclear program, has determined that Iran currently obtains its electricity needs from the following sources: 75% from natural gas, 7% from hydroelectric plants, and 18% from oil-fired plants. In other words, with the demand for electricity “growing at an annual rate of 8%”, Iran relies on hydrocarbons for well over 90% of its electricity needs. In conjunction with conflicting pressures from subsidizing domestic consumption of gasoline and stringent Western sanctions, it is unsurprising that Iran would look to alternative energy supplies to meet its domestic demand and improve efficiency at home, while at the same time diverting fossil fuels for export.

As sanctions tighten on the country, Iran must look to the East and South for trading partners, to whom it must offer deep discounts to thwart Western attempts to dissuade these buyers and isolate Iran economically. Yet if Iran can exploit even half of what France obtains from nuclear energy, costs associated with sanctions, subsidies, and discounts would be more than offset. The nuclear fuel enriched in Iran has other domestic purposes as well, including for use in the Tehran Research Reactor, which develops cancer treatments for Iranian chemotherapy patients.

It is, nevertheless, a reality that top-to-bottom control over the nuclear cycle creates the potential for weaponization, should the Iranian government ever decide to move in this direction, and it this possibility that the West fears.

2. Why Is Control Over the Nuclear Cycle So Important to Iran? Why Can’t Iran  Abandon Nuclear Enrichment on Its Territory and Import Nuclear Fuel?

The simple answer to this question is trust. Iran does not trust the United States or the West more generally. During the Iran-Iraq war, the Unite States, in collaboration mostly with European countries, supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, leading a multinational effort to cut Iran off from virtually every aspect of the global economy. This experience was traumatizing for the Islamic Republic, which was in its early days, and affected how Tehran’s new decision-makers viewed the West and its attitude toward Iran.

On the nuclear front, as analyzed by Geoff Forden, “Iran has experienced a history of being denied access to the nuclear infrastructure it bought into in the West.” During Iran’s reformist era, under President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), the country stopped enrichment for two years and focused on finding trust-building mechanisms with the West that would allow it to pursue its nuclear aims free from U.S.-driven pressure. However, at the end of the two-year period, Iran was unable to offer anything concrete to the West that could overcome the trust deficit. As a result, suspicions in Tehran toward the West only hardened.

While Iran’s critics accuse it of failing to be transparent on the nuclear issue, Iran believes (rightly or wrongly) that transparency will not create the space for confidence-building with its counterparts or solve its problems with the West, but rather will weaken its position. From the Iranian vantage point, they have been forced to be as minimally transparent as possible, not because their intention is to weaponize, but because U.S. efforts to economically and industrially weaken the country are now playing out on the nuclear field. Iran views full transparency not as a way to break the impasse with the West, but as a method for the West to weaken and stymie Iran’s technological and industrial development goals.

Recently, Iran accused the IAEA of indirect complicity in murdering individuals connected with the Iranian nuclear program. Mohammad Javad Larijani, a high ranking Iranian official, stated last year, that there is no “confidentiality” within the Agency, suggesting that the IAEA has shared its intelligence on Iran with the U.S., European, and Israeli intelligence, placing Iran in a weaker position as it deals with the sabotage and assassinations that have occurred.

During the Obama Administration, several important developments on the nuclear front exacerbated the trust deficit between Iran and the West. These included the breakdown of the October 2009 agreement between Iran and the IAEA/United States/France/Russia under which Iran would have sent out a little more than 50% of its stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) in exchange for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. The October 2009 agreement was not intended to be a solution to the nuclear impasse, but rather was formulated as a trust-building measure. It, failed because of the complete lack of trust on both sides. Iran agreed to the swap, but stipulated that the exchange happen in phases and within Iranian territory, qualifications that the West would not accept.

Other events which further eroded trust between Iran and the West were U.S. rejection of the Tehran Declaration brokered by Brazil and Turkey (which was intended to revive the October 2009 agreement), the rebuff of the offer from Fereydoun Abbasi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, in which Iran agreed to five-years full supervision by the U.N. Atomic Energy Agency of all its nuclear related matters in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, and the continued assassination of people who are connected, how ever tangentially, to Iran’s nuclear industry.

U.S. rejection of the Tehran Declaration and the U.N. Security Council’s approval of sanctions on Iran shortly thereafter significantly deteriorated any hopes of a de-escalation in tensions between the United States and Iran in Obama’s first term. Because the Tehran Research Reactor needed fuel rods to continue operating and serving 700,000 cancer patients in Iran and because sanctions prevented Iran from purchasing these rods on the global market, Iran’s indigenous civilian nuclear efforts continued, as exemplified by its successful production of home-grown nuclear fuel rods for the reactor. Subsequent dismissal of the Abbasi offer only hardened Tehran’s belief that its nuclear program had become a convenient tool for the United States to pressure the country. For these reasons as well as Iran’s partial isolation from the global economy and deep-seeded mistrust of the West, total control of the nuclear fuel cycle within Iranian territory has become a red line for Iran’s decision-makers.