The nuclear program of Iran was launched in the 1950s with the help of the United States as part of the Atoms for Peace program. The participation of the United States and Western European governments in Iran's nuclear program continued until the 1979 Iranian Revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran.
A recent CNN poll revealed that more than three-quarters of the American public sees Iran and North Korea as "serious" threats while only 44 percent feels the same way about Russia. Indeed, fear of the Iranian threat in the United States is more widespread today than fear of the Soviet threat was in 1985, even though at that time the Soviet Union possessed the largest nuclear arsenal in the world and today Iran doesn't have a single nuclear weapon.
The U.S. and its allies accuse Iran of using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies the charges, saying its program is peaceful and geared toward generating electricity and producing medical radioisotopes to treat cancer patients.
The U.S. and its allies are pressuring Iran to halt uranium enrichment, a key element of the nuclear program that the West suspects is aimed at producing atomic weapons. Uranium enriched to low levels can be used as nuclear fuel but at higher levels, it can be used as material for a nuclear warhead.
The head of US intelligence has warned that there is an increasing likelihood that Iran could carry out attacks in America or against US and allied targets around the world.
In Beijing, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assured Chinese and Afghan leaders that Tehran isn't working to create nuclear weapons, the official New China News Agency reported. But Ahmadinejad also said he wouldn't be threatened into abandoning nuclear ambitions by outside forces.
Barack Obama, while delivering his third State of the Union, added another entry: “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.”
The threat of tighter economic sanctions has prompted the Iranians to try more flexible tactics in their dealings with the United States and other powers, while the revival of direct negotiations has tempered the most inflammatory talk on all sides.
Current and former U.S. officials say they are confident that Iran has no secret uranium-enrichment site outside the purview of U.N. nuclear inspections. They also have confidence that any Iranian move toward building a functional nuclear weapon would be detected long before a bomb was made.
Over the last few years, Iran has become the target of a series of notable cyberattacks, some of which were linked to its nuclear program. According to an article in The New York Times in June 2012, during President Obama‘s first few months in office, he secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on Iran’s computer systems at its nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America’s first sustained use of cyberweapons.
Several Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated in recent years, with Iran blaming Israel and the US. Both countries deny the accusations.
Although there have been reports aplenty about a potential attack on Israel, it seems more likely that Iran would wield its powers as others do. "Every country that has reached the level of nuclear potential has realised that you maximise this potential by refraining from the use of your weapons," said author and Iran expert Stephen Kinzer.
Tehran has previously threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz - a vital crude shipping lane - if it is attacked, which experts say would result in a spike in the price of oil and could hit the U.S. economy as it seeks to recover from the financial crisis.