Q. Why should Iran want to produce a nuclear weapon?
Iran is an ancient and proud nation and reacts badly to being treated as a pariah state. It can see how Pakistan's prestige was enhanced in the Islamic world when a Pakistani scientist developed the first Islamic bomb. Iran could do the same for Shia Islam. From a geopolitical perspective, Iran looks around the Middle East and Asia and sees regions bristling with nuclear weapons. To the east lie Pakistan and India, both nuclear armed. To the west is Iraq, which gassed Iranian citizens and where Saddam Hussein tried to develop nuclear weapons. Further west lies Israel - Iran's implacable foe - which is estimated to have 200 nuclear bombs. None of these nations has come under serious pressure to dismantle its nuclear arsenals, and indeed they have gained in international prominence thanks to the bomb.
In the Far East, North Korea is believed to have nuclear weapons, but rather than being threatened with military action it has received security assurances from the Americans.
Although Iran has been blamed by the US and Europe for escalating the current crisis, Iranians could feel that the sabre-rattling and warnings that "all options are on the table" are forcing them to defend themselves from possible attack.
However, when asked about Iran's nuclear plans, Iranian officials always insist their intentions are peaceful and they know that their country would face devastating military action if that were not the case. Experts believe the Iranians probably want to keep their options open by continuing nuclear research that may eventually be switched to weapons production.
Q. When did the dispute between Iran and the West worsen?
After the election of its hardline President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last June. His early statements after coming to power - in which he called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" - were put down to the political inexperience of the former mayor of Tehran. But his strongly nationalistic rhetoric has clearly struck a chord with much of the Iranian population as well as part of the Iranian leadership. It is unlikely that he could continue to repeat his pro-nuclear and anti-Israeli statements without the tacit approval of Iran's spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Demonstrators form a human chain, at the Isfahan's Uranium Conversion Facility, to support Iran's nuclear program, just outside the city of Isfahan, 410 kilometers, 255 miles, south of Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2005. Hundreds of Iranian students rallied outside the gates of the uranium conversion plant here Tuesday, forming a human chain and calling on Iran to ignore Western pressure and forge ahead with its nuclear program. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
It will be more difficult now for the Iranian leadership to back down on its nuclear programme because of the high profile that the issue has been given domestically in recent months, fuelled by street demonstrations.
Q. Can there be a military solution to the dispute?
As the US and Israel both know, it would be extremely tricky because of the possible Iranian retaliation which could stir up a great deal of trouble for the US and its allies in the Middle East through Iran's links to extremist Islamic groups such as Hizbollah and Islamic Jihad.
Already influential inside Iraq, where the US has more than 130,000 troops tied-up, Iran could wreak havoc there. Iran has also taken care to build much of its nuclear infrastructure underground making facilities less vulnerable to attack. Iranian officials like to boast that taking on Iran militarily would not be as simple as crushing Iraq which was already weakened and isolated in the region when it was invaded in 2003.
Iran, a major oil producer, could also retaliate effectively on the economic front. That is the problem for the West as it prepares to discuss possible sanctions against Iran. As one Western diplomat put it: "We have to find a way to hurt Iran, without it hurting us."
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited