At the International Atomic Energy Agency General Conference in Vienna last week, once again the focus of discussion was the nuclear program of Iran, which refuses to stop its uranium enrichment and cooperates only partially with IAEA inspectors.

This sort of cat-and-mouse game, with its familiar rules, has been going on for almost a decade, while in the meantime, step by step, Iran advances its nuclear program, overtly and covertly.

For their part, intelligence agencies around the world continue to gather information, and to monitor and attempt to sabotage, delay and disrupt this progress. The international community is having trouble interpreting the Iranians' actions and predicting when Tehran will actually have nuclear weapons (the current assessment in the Mossad, IDF Military Intelligence and the CIA is that that will be in 2015 ). At the same time, in Iran a bitter but secret debate is raging over whether to assemble nuclear weapons or make do with nuclear capacity - i.e., having the know-how and the means to manufacture such weapons within a short time, if necessary.

The argument in Iran crosses ideological boundaries: Not all of the conservatives are in favor of a attaining nuclear option, and not all reformists are opposed to it. Furthermore, the dispute is not only political, military and economic in nature, but also religious. The religious dimension was the subject of an interesting analysis in a recent study by Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Eisenstadt, a former military analyst with the U.S. Defense Department, and Khalaji, an Iranian-born specialist on Shi'a religious law, gave their study a provocative title: "Nuclear Fatwa: Religion and Politics in Iran's Proliferation Strategy."

It is necessary to look at the religious side of the nuclear program, the authors say, because Iran is a theocracy, in which religion plays a key role in politics. Basically, their article takes issue with those who believe Tehran's claims that it is not aiming to develop nuclear arms because Islam forbids weapons of mass destruction.

The researchers, who do not conceal the difficulty of obtaining reliable information to back up their claims, also discuss the attitudes of two Iranian leaders, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Ali Khamenei, toward WMD systems. In the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, Iranian troops were attacked by chemical weapons, but the Islamic Republic did not respond with an non-conventional counterattack. Why? Iran did not have chemical weapons at the time, but Khomeini was opposed to using them in any event, on the grounds that Islam does not permit targeting noncombatant civilians.

Toward the end of the war, Khomeini changed his mind, fearing that Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, would use gas not only against soldiers but also against citizens in cities and villages. So Iran developed a limited quantity of chemical weapons, intended for deterrent purposes.

Years later, in 2003,att was reported that Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini in 1989, had issued a fatwa banning the production and use of all types of WMD. From that day to this, Iran's supreme leader, as well as other senior government figures, has repeatedly maintained that his country is not striving to obtain nuclear weapons, because Islam forbids it.

But the authors of the study warn against putting much stock in this attitude of Khomeini and Khamenei. First of all, they emphasize, Islamic tradition, in general, and Shi'ite tradition, in particular, contain justifications for using any means to harm those who do not believe in Islam. Secondly, fatwas are issued according to unique circumstances and can be modified.

Furthermore, Shi'ite law permits deception and dissimulation in matters of life and death, and when such tactics serve the Islamic community, the umma. "Such considerations have almost certainly shaped Iran's nuclear diplomacy," the researchers state, but they go on to point out that Iran is not an exception in this regard. Every country that has produced or tried to produce nuclear weapons - such as India, Pakistan, South Africa, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and according to foreign reports also Israel - has resorted to tactics of concealment, denial and deception.

Final arbiter

As for Khomeini, the authors remind us that prior to his death, he approved the fatwa that authorizes destruction of a mosque or suspending observance of the most sacred duties if it is in the vital interests of the regime. Khomeini thereby ranked the state above religion in everything pertaining to the core principles of domestic and foreign policy.

In Iran the supreme leader is the final arbiter. But the researchers say that the balance of power within the regime has been shifting in recent years. In their opinion, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad represents the most radical messianic elements in the Shi'ite community - the ones that might use the nuclear option in a war against Israel and the United States, to hasten the arrival of the Mahdi, the Shi'ite messiah.

However, they state that the Iranian regime has not shown any signs to date of an irrational policy; on the contrary, it has exercised moderation and prudence. "From its inception, decision-making in the Islamic Republic has been influenced by the tension between the absolute imperatives of religion and the pragmatic concerns of statecraft," they write.

However, this has changed in recent years, they add. What has been perceived in Iran as the successes of the "resistance" doctrine of Hezbollah and Hamas, the growing political messianism of Ahmadinejad, and the failure of international efforts to halt the nuclear program - all this has "produced a more assertive regime that may be more inclined to take risks." That, they explain, will hamper efforts by the United States and its allies "to deter and contain a nuclear Iran." To put it in less academic terms, they do not rule out the possibility that if Iran had nuclear weapons, it might use them.

By its very nature, such a categorical study has prompted reactions from Iranian researchers. Some have pointed out that the authors are fellows at a research institute that is identified with the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, is considered a clear-cut supporter of Israel, and has broad ties to senior officials in the Israeli defense establishment. For instance, the Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen and former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi are among the long list of fellows who have worked at the institute. Others have noted that the authors ignore the power struggle going on in recent months between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, which could have implications for the nuclear issue.

Another criticism of the study centered on the West's double standard with regard to Islamic rulings. Why was Khomeini's fatwa years ago against the writer Salman Rushdie taken seriously while Khamenei's fatwa against weapons of mass destruction has been taken lightly?

But even without drawing far-reaching and pessimistic conclusions, the chances of halting Iran's nuclear race are not great. In the assessment of most experts, economic sanctions, aggressive diplomacy, or secret sabotage operations such as injecting a virus into the computers of nuclear facilities, won't get the job done.

Meanwhile, the option of a military attack, which has a certain chance of keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, has no support in Western public opinion. A recent poll by the German Marshall Fund of the United States found this year that 76 percent of Americans are concerned about the possibility of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, compared to 86 percent last year. Only 6 percent of those polled in 12 European Union countries, and 13 percent of American respondents, favored a military response.