UN Nuclear Agency Revisits Prior Iran Findings

The IAEA released a much-anticipated report yesterday on the status of Iran’s nuclear program publically calling out proof of that country’s weaponization activities. But, as many experts and journalists are reporting, the evidence, while disturbing, is neither new nor conclusive.

In a new 13-page appendix, the IAEA documents Iranian nuclear research conducted up to 2003 that included warhead design and testing of detonators that could trigger a nuclear explosion. What sets this report apart from others is this appendix on weaponization activities and its qualified assertion that, “some activities may still be ongoing.” If Iran has been engaged in the warhead research, the Arms Control Association notes, it contradicts its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty. “But it remains apparent that a nuclear-armed Iran is still not imminent nor is it inevitable.”

As the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation points out, ambiguity in the report’s conclusions weaken it, limiting our knowledge to past rather than current Iranian activities.

“Unfortunately, more recent activities receive a far lower level of clarity from the IAEA. According to the report, there are, ‘indications that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing,’ but ‘the Agency’s ability to construct an equally good understanding of activities in Iran after the end of 2003 is reduced, due to the more limited information available to the Agency.’” 

Without access to solid information on the current state of Iran’s nuclear program, the Atlantic Council’s Barbara Slavin asks in a Politico op-ed how policymakers should respond to the new report’s.  

“Washington and its partners should provide Iran with a clearer sense of what the international community would accept in terms of uranium enrichment and civilian nuclear activity — if Iran clarifies its behavior and accepts stringent safeguards against diversion to weapons.”

Given the lack of specifics in the report, David Sanger of the New York Times calls out its inevitable politicization. He writes that, as in the past, the IAEA “is about to be sucked into the political whirlpool about how the world should respond to murky weapons intelligence.”

True to that prediction, leaks of the report and its release have set off a firestorm of response. Many are citing the report and its content as reason to turn to military options. This was seen in the GOP debates, and in dangerous reports that both Israel and the UK were inching closer to a military strike. David Remnick of the New Yorker wrote that Israel,

“…may be trying to heighten the sense of crisis in order to insure that the United States, Britain, and other Western powers will go to great lengths to intensify sanctions and exert maximum pressure on Iran in the wake of the new I.A.E.A. report.”

Ploughshares Fund’s Joel Rubin and Joe Cirincione have both weighed in on television stations from CBC News in Canada to Fox News and MSNBC in the US, explaining why military strikes would be inappropriate. 

Meanwhile Congress will certainly be working on its own solution -- pending drastic sanctions legislation coming out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The National Iranian American Council calls for level heads in the face of Congressional decisions that may upend multilateral efforts to stem proliferation from Iran. 

The administration has broken its silence in a statement following the report’s release, calling for additional diplomatic efforts in the form of additional sanctions and continued pressure. Some experts and advocates feel the administration should broaden its definition of diplomacy to include negotiations to safeguard Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Amid all the political noise, it’s hard to know if the IAEA report will be a game changer. Its strong documentation of Iranian nuclear enrichment program puts additional pressure on the Islamic Republic to come back into the fold of responsible nations. Smart actions by the international community could encourage that outcome, but overly aggressive posturing might equally derail such attempts.