With new evidence that Iran’s nuclear weapons program is gaining steam, the Islamic Republic is once again in the world’s crosshairs.
- By Mark HibbsMark Hibbs is a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s newest report on Iran’s nuclear program, a document that has been quietly under preparation for several months, brings forth evidence that the Islamic Republic has covered a lot of technical ground to develop a nuclear weapon over the past two decades. But it stops short of the most incendiary charge: that Iran’s political leadership masterminded a secret program to possess atomic arms. In view of the wealth of incriminating detail that the IAEA presented in the report, that omission may be the only face-saving argument left to Tehran to permit diplomacy to continue as usual. And because the report draws no conclusions about how far along Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities are, it will be irrelevant to Israel’s calculus of whether to attack Iranian nuclear installations.
Since 2008, Iran has described allegations that it is working on nuclear weapons as based on falsified intelligence, similar to the kind that led the United States in 2002 to mislead the IAEA and the world that Iraq had resumed its defunct nuclear weapons program. Then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 presentation of that "evidence" to the U.N. Security Council proved to be a watershed event, sowing mistrust at the IAEA under future Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei for years. Until ElBaradei was succeeded as director-general by Yukiya Amano in 2009, Iran could rely on the IAEA to not bring forth alarming data based on its member states’ "national technical means."
In the meantime, however, the IAEA accumulated a thick dossier pointing to dedicated Iranian investigation of critical technical areas related to nuclear arms development — neutron initiation, detonation, high-explosives testing, nuclear test preparation, modeling, specific physics research, work on re-entry of a ballistic missile payload. The IAEA became increasingly confident that the information was genuine. With the 2002 flare-up between the United States and the IAEA over Iraq keenly etched in their memory, the authors of the report prefaced their findings by explaining that, to the greatest extent possible, the records were multisourced and robustly vetted.
With Amano at the helm, the IAEA has been firmer in spelling out that it will pursue allegations of a "possible military dimension" to Iran’s nuclear program, which remained largely buried under ElBaradei. Much of the data in this week’s document detail allegations that Amano has already brought forth, in abbreviated form, in previous quarterly reports to the IAEA’s governing board over the last two years. But belying Iran’s claim that specific activities were carried out for civilian reasons, the IAEA report asserts that some activities appear only to be justified by work on nuclear explosives and that Iran’s military has been deeply involved dating back to 1989.
The 1989 date may not be coincidental. In a 2004 meeting in Tehran between ElBaradei and Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the president described his intense emotional reaction to seeing Iranian front-line soldiers killed by poison-gas attacks during Iran’s 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, during which he held a senior military role. Rafsanjani’s 1989-1997 presidency saw the rise to prominence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has spread its influence across Iran’s civilian society.
For half a decade, IAEA officials asked themselves whether Rafsanjani’s experience on the Iran-Iraq front might have crystallized into a political decision by Iran’s leaders to develop a secret nuclear capability that — as in the case of Israel — would ensure that the Islamic Republic would never again be hostage to a traumatic national security threat.
That is a question the IAEA report doesn’t address. It never mentions the IRGC or any of Iran’s leaders. Indeed, it never assigns any political responsibility for decisions that, over two decades, established a close relationship between Iranian military and scientific organizations that carried out experiments, research, and secret procurement activities in support of what looks like a nuclear weapons program. The IAEA report tells us that these activities have been going on, but it doesn’t tell us who ordered them.
Without full cooperation from Iran, the IAEA might never find that out. In 1991, about six months after IAEA inspectors began questioning Iraqi nuclear scientists about the existence of a hidden nuclear weapons program after the end of the first Gulf War, the IAEA’s leading inspector in the field wrote a note back to Vienna headquarters. He reported that he had talked to many Iraqi R&D scientists working on nuclear activities, but that none would disclose who was in charge of the whole program. It took several years of intense digging — only made possible by the carte blanche that international monitors had following the Gulf War — to find links between Iraq’s leadership and the scientists doing the nuclear weapons work. In Iran, however, the IAEA and the United Nations don’t have that mandate, and they’re not likely to under the current regime in Tehran.
Recent media reports have claimed that Israeli leaders are now considering an attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure to put an end to Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons — and hawks favoring "regime change" in Iran may take the report as a go-ahead. But the immense risks such an effort would entail should convince them to think twice. And the IAEA report should certainly not be considered a casus belli.
Although the report documents that Iran is engaged in nuclear weapons-related development on many fronts, it does not say anything about Iran’s prospects for success or how close to a nuclear bomb it might be. Answering these questions is not the IAEA’s job, and the agency likely does not know the answers in any case.
During the first half of this year, Western IAEA board members urged Amano to adopt a road map to address serious long-standing compliance problems in three countries: Syria, North Korea, and Iran. When the IAEA learned that Syria had secretly built a nuclear reactor and had then failed to cooperate with an agency investigation, the board of governors in June cited Syria for noncompliance and brought the matter to the U.N. Security Council. Russia and China blocked any sanctions on Syria, but the board’s citation of Syria permitted the IAEA to refocus its attention on Iran.
As with Syria, the board now has compelling testimony from the IAEA secretariat that Iran should be called to order. If the board agrees to a noncompliance resolution at its next meeting on Nov. 18, the Security Council could agree to still tougher sanctions against Iran, but this road may be blocked, again, by China and Russia.
So once again, the immediate result of an IAEA report to the board on Iran might be a paralyzing lack of consensus on the Security Council. Both Syria and Iran will remain truculent. But there is a crucial difference: While there is no acute concern that Syria’s nuclear program is active, the stopwatch for Iran’s mastering of atomic-arms capability will keep ticking.
The IAEA’s reporting on Iran’s nuclear weapons-related activities was not motivated by realpolitik but by a desire to keep the world’s attention focused on a nuclear program that the IAEA, after nearly a decade of investigation, cannot certify is just for peaceful use. In revealing this dossier, the IAEA served the international community — but it also made the outlook for a negotiated solution to the Iran crisis less likely.