In Iran the clock is ticking. In fact, three clocks are ticking simultaneously - in the country's nuclear laboratories, at the negotiating table and on the streets. Its future depends on which clock ticks fastest.
Demonstrations filled the streets yesterday, accompanied by the clear sound of a political crackdown as the regime's supporters and opponents squared up. But for all the sound and fury the two sides were like boxers circling in the ring. It was not a decisive moment. The political clock is still ticking.
On the nuclear front matters appear to be moving faster. Iran now has thousands of centrifuges enriching uranium 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The uranium has certainly been enriched to a concentration (approximately 4 per cent) suitable for producing electricity. But yesterday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed Iran had produced uranium enriched to a concentration of 20 per cent, only days after announcing that as an ambition. Is this just bluster? We cannot be sure. What we do know is that from there it is only a short step to the 90 per cent concentration required to produce fuel for nuclear weapons. Iran appears to have encountered technical problems enriching large amounts of uranium, but it could still generate significant quantities of weapons-grade fuel in one to three years, if not sooner.
It is not yet clear whether Iran intends to go so far as to produce, test and field nuclear weapons. Iranian officials might decide to halt their programme just short of that, calculating that Iran could garner most of the benefits of being perceived as a nuclear weapons state without incurring most of the costs. Either outcome - Iran as an actual nuclear weapons state or a "threshold" one - would have profoundly destabilising consequences for the region and the world.