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How soon will Iran get a nuclear bomb? And what should the West do to prevent this scenario?

Before the US National Intelligence Agency published, in December 2007, its findings on Tehran's nuclear programme (NIE), few doubted that the Bush administration would eventually attack Iran's facilities. After all, several senior officials in the administration had explicitly repeated that "no option was off the table". Although they were sceptical of the diplomatic effort led by France, Germany and Britain to negotiate a deal with Tehran, they had given their support to a set of measures offered to Iran in June 2006 by the international community in exchange for a deal, only to see it rebuffed. An International Atomic Energy Agency report published in late November 2007 was extremely negative, so it was safe to assume that a showdown with the US was looming.

The American report was a game changer. It declared that Tehran had "halted its nuclear weapons programme" in autumn 2003. It suggested that Iran had suspended its military programme "primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran's previously undeclared nuclear work."

There were many caveats to this judgment, buried in the footnotes and intervening text, but the headline was that Iran no longer pursued nuclear weapons. The report undermined any residual credibility to the threat of US military action. Diplomacy was the only option left. George W. Bush endorsed it — and a new proposal was delivered to Iran with the signature of the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, in June 2008. President Obama picked up where Bush left off, and made engagement with Iran a centrepiece of his new foreign policy. Then, recently, Obama's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a nuclear umbrella to US allies in the region, as if to suggest that the US was now resigned to a nuclear Iran. 

Two years have gone by and diplomacy has achieved nothing. Meanwhile, Iran's regime has quelled a reformist attempt to retake the presidency by rigging an election and brutally repressing the ensuing protests. After all this, does diplomacy still have a chance? And given Iran's record, can the US resign itself to an Islamic Republic with nuclear weapons?

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