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The report issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Tuesday that provided strong, “credible” evidence that Iran is building a nuclear weapon was not a surprise. It simply confirmed what the US, Israel, and much of the west has been saying about Tehran’s clandestine nuclear program for a decade or more. More to the point is why the IAEA chose to make the most definitive statement on Iranian nuclear intentions at this time and what was included in the report that led to this 180 degree change in the UN nuclear watchdog’s conclusions.
Equally important as the revelations regarding Iran’s nuclear intentions contained in the report is the question of what can be done about it? It is here that the world divides, with some nations advocating airstrikes against Iranian facilities, while most prefer to increase the severity of sanctions.
Much of the intelligence gathered for the report has been in the possession of the IAEA for years, and many observers believe that the previous head of the agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, deliberately softened IAEA reports in order to entice Iran to negotiate a settlement. Indeed, a large part of the report released on Tuesday is culled directly from a secret paper written in 2008 for the IAEA that ElBaradei never published, but which provided much of the impetus for the agency’s current conclusions about the Iranian program.
“The level of detail is unbelievable,” said a Western diplomat, quoted in the New York Times. Indeed, the IAEA seemed particularly careful in providing documents, transcripts of interviews with scientists both in and outside of Iran, and publicizing intelligence gleaned from 10 different countries in order to assuage fears in the international community that the evidence was provided mostly by the CIA and Mossad.
For example, Reuters reports that two member states passed along intelligence showing that Iran had carried out computer modeling studies “relevant to nuclear weapons” as recently as 2008-09. “The application of such studies to anything other than a nuclear explosive is unclear to the agency,” the IAEA said.
Beyond laying to rest questions about the credibility of sources, another addition to the report that had been missing in previous IAEA analysis is the effort to marry a nuclear warhead to Iran’s existing array of medium-range missiles. “I think the facts lay out a pretty overwhelming case that this was a pretty sophisticated nuclear weapons effort aimed at miniaturizing a warhead for a ballistic missile,” said prominent US arms control expert David Albright. “It’s overwhelming in the amount of details, it is a pretty convincing case,” he told Reuters.
The major difference between reports generated under ElBaradei and today is the tough, no nonsense Japanese diplomat who now heads the IAEA. Yukiya Amano has tried — within the limited sphere of his authority — to hold Iran accountable for its secrecy and refusal to answer questions about the extent of its nuclear research and development programs. Far more than ElBaradei, who at times seemed to be Iran’s primary nuclear enabler, Amano has fought his own board to toughen reports on the Iranian program, resisting efforts to soften language and obfuscate conclusions.
In this case, it may not be a slam dunk — there is no “smoking gun” that reveals Iranian intentions with any certainty — but, as Amano notes, there is “a thousand pages of documents” that showed “research, development and testing activities” that strongly suggest a military aspect to the Iranian’s proclaimed “peaceful” nuclear program.
Why release such a strongly worded and detailed report now? Amano, suggested one diplomat, may have reached the limit of his patience with Iranian evasions and might be trying to use the IAEA as a spur to get Iran back to the negotiating table. “Amano thinks that the best role the IAEA can play is as a technical agency that is forthcoming about the information that it has,” the diplomat said. Contrary to belief in some quarters in the West, the sanctions against Tehran have hurt far more than the regime has let on. While they haven’t materially affected the Iranian nuclear program, shortages of basics, inflation, and a lack of spare parts have deeply impacted ordinary people and caused much anger at the government. Another round of sanctions targeting the Iranian petrol industry would bite even harder, although both Russia and China oppose any more sanctions at all at this time. Amano realizes this and believes if the choice is between tougher sanctions or a military strike, Moscow and Beijing may reluctantly come on board for another round of Security Council actions against Tehran. It’s an admitted long shot, but looking at the alternative, it’s a diplomat’s hope to resolve the crisis peacefully.
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