What led to the 180 degree change in the UN nuclear watchdog’s conclusions on Iran?
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.
In fact, the IAEA report has now brought the Iranian problem to a crisis level. CNN quotes one expert, Geneive Abdo, Iran analyst with The Century Foundation, who believes that a "dangerous turning point" has been reached:
"I think the only move is to have some sort of dialogue with Iran. Whether over Afghanistan or over its nuclear program, the parties have to come back to the negotiating table," she said. "Because the silence is very dangerous. Also, the Iranians, I believe, really believe that there could be an attack now, and they feel completely under siege."
"Historically, the way Iran reacts to pressure is more aggression," and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made clear he reacts that way as well, Abdo said.
The US would lead the effort for an additional round of sanctions at the UN, but most diplomats hold out little hope that they would alter Iran's path. Instead, the Obama administration may go it alone or engage its friends and allies in imposing their own, tougher sanctions on Iran. But the same problems present themselves in such a multi-lateral effort; Russia and China would ignore the restrictions and continue to trade with Tehran. One possible target might be the Iranian central bank that deals with other international banks around the world. Restricting Iran's access to foreign capital would cause the regime some difficulty in the import-export sector.
Despite clear evidence that sanctions won't stop Tehran from developing a weapon, they will be tried because the alternative -- military action -- would only delay Iran's drive for a bomb for three years at most. That's been a consistent assessment from the Pentagon and CIA for three years now. And an invasion coupled with regime change would have very little support in the US, as well as giving no guarantee that the next Iranian regime wouldn't pursue nuclear weapons as well. Also, the sites that would be targeted are spread out all over the country and many are underground and hidden.
The Israeli air force would have a difficult mission if it were tasked with bombing Iranian nuclear sites. Difficult - but not impossible. The flights would necessarily be long, with some of the flight path over the territory of states not likely to grant overflight permission. Would the US assist the Israelis by taking out Iranian air defenses, or perhaps even join in a strike on the nuclear sites? If the Israelis is going to go ahead and bomb Iran, there are some who believe we may as well assist them because Iran is going to blame us anyway. More likely, any US administration will do all in its power to dissuade the Israelis from striking. The consequences from skyrocketing oil prices, to probable proxy attacks on our troops and bases in the region would not be worth the small gain in time -- if any time is to be gained at this point -- in delaying the Iranian quest for a bomb.
The options are all unacceptable -- but so is Iran getting the bomb.
This suggests the nearly unthinkable: would Israel use tactical nuclear weapons to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities? The idea has been examined by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) who said in a report that "some believe that nuclear weapons are the only weapons that can destroy targets deep underground or in tunnels." Israel, which denies it possesses nuclear weapons, would almost certainly refrain from using them -- unless it felt it had no choice and that Iran was preparing a strike against the country.
Whatever Israel decides, it will be soon. The IAEA report clearly shows that time has run out and the world is faced with a stark choice: try to delay or destroy the Iranian nuclear program or learn to live with a nuclear Iran.
Both options carry with them great risk and little or no reward.
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