New IAEA report may not shift Iran policy

UN nuclear watchdog's latest report on Iran largely reinforces what Western countries already believed, analysts say.


    The IAEA report certified that Iran was not diverting its nuclear fuel for military purposes [EPA]

    The latest report from the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, hyped before its release as a potential watershed, is unlikely to do much to shift international policy on Iran's nuclear programme, analysts say.

    French foreign minister Alain Juppe called for a meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the report, and the White House hinted at possible further economic sanctions on Iran. But reaction to the report has otherwise been quite muted.

    The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, released on Tuesday (pdf), does make it difficult for Tehran to claim, as it has before, that its nuclear programme is entirely for civilian purposes. Much of the report confirms the military applications of research conducted prior to 2003, like the construction of a "containment vessel" used to test prototype explosives for use in nuclear weapons.

    "While some of the activities identified in the annex have civilian as well as military applications, others are specific to nuclear weapons," the agency noted in the report, referring to a section of the report which outlines Iran's research efforts.

    Yet the report does not conclude that Iran has restarted its nuclear weapons programme, which was officially suspended in late 2003. The IAEA certified that Iran has not diverted any of its stockpiled low-enriched uranium for military purposes.

    And US officials, citing their own intelligence, said that Iran "still has not mastered" any of the complex technologies required to produce a nuclear weapon.

    The report, in other words, seems largely to confirm what most analysts and intelligence services already believed: that Iran has studied how to design a nuclear weapon. But it offers no new evidence on how close Iran is to finishing one, analysts say, or even whether it is actively trying to build one.

    "The report suggests that Iran is working to shorten the timeframe to building the bomb once and if it makes that decision," said a memo from the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based think tank. "But it remains apparent that a nuclear-armed Iran is still not imminent nor is it inevitable."

    'Most of this is not new'

    Many of the findings in the report which deal with a possible weapons programme - alleged modifications to the Shahab-3 missile, for example, which could be used to deliver a nuclear warhead - have been disclosed previously, either by Western intelligence services or in other IAEA reports.

    "Most of this has been known to experts for several years," said Joseph Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, a nuclear policy organisation in Washington. "What's different is that for the first time it's out of the... internal workings of the IAEA, and being presented on the world stage, with the imprimatur of the agency's head."

    The report does attempt to add new details to several of these findings, particularly about the so-called "green salt project," an alternate method of enriching uranium. If successful, it could theoretically allow Iran to spin off a separate nuclear programme free of IAEA oversight. But experts say such an undertaking would be enormously difficult to keep secret.

    The "green salt" programme was first publicly disclosed in 2006, based on information on a laptop which an unnamed source brought to the IAEA in 2004. Analysts have long questioned the authenticity of the files on that computer, often pejoratively dubbed the "laptop of death."

    Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director of the IAEA, admitted in the past that the agency often struggled to verify information on Iran's nuclear programme, much of it supplied by Western governments.

    Tuesday's release does reveal a few new details about Iran's research. There is the "explosives vessel," for example, a large cylinder built at the Parchin military complex southeast of Tehran, which is used to test nuclear devices, according to the IAEA. 

    "From independent evidence, including a publication by the foreign expert referred to in paragraph 44 above, the Agency has been able to confirm the date of construction of the cylinder and some of its design features (such as its dimensions), and that it was designed to contain the detonation of up to 70 kilograms of high explosives."

    The IAEA calls the vessel a single-use structure, a "strong indicator of possible weapon development." 

    An understated reaction

    There was little immediate reaction to the report in Washington or in European capitals. The White House called the report significant, but emphasised the questions it failed to answer.

    "The IAEA report does not assert that Iran has resumed a full-scale nuclear weapons program, nor does it have a conclusion about how advanced those activities are, but clearly indicates there are activities of concern," said a senior administration official.

    US intelligence agencies continue to stand behind an official estimate, released in 2007, that Iran's nuclear weapons programme was mostly stopped in 2003.

    Reaction in Israel was also muted. Iran's nuclear programme has been a hot issue there for several weeks, ever since Nahum Barnea, a respected political journalist, published a column in Yediot Aharonot which accused the government of rushing into a war with Iran.

    Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and Ehud Barak, the defence minister, were pushing for military action "in the total absence of any public debate," Barnea wrote.

    Ahmadinejad promised not to retreat "one iota" on the nuclear programme during a speech on Wednesday [EPA]

    Netanyahu reportedly told his cabinet not to discuss the IAEA's findings in public, according to Ha'aretz.

    But his office issued a statement on Wednesday, saying the international community "must bring about the cessation of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons".

    "The IAEA report corroborates the position of the international community, and of Israel that Iran is developing nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said.

    Tzipi Livni, the opposition leader, also called on world countries to "halt Tehran's weapons programme."

    The US official said the Obama administration was studying possible sanctions against people affiliated with Iran's nuclear programme; Russia's deputy foreign minister, meanwhile, said on Wednesday that his country would not endorse further sanctions.

    "The important point is that most of Iran's alleged weapons work was conducted before 2003," said Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

    "In other words, I don't quite see a rush to war or any such panic. More likely, the US government will use these findings as a diplomatic tool to reinforce a sanctions regime that it sees as promising but leaky."

    The loudest reaction came from Iran, where president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad condemned the report and promised not to retreat "an iota" from the country's nuclear programme.

    A longer rebuttal was published by the Islamic Republic News Agency, the Iranian government's official news agency. It described the IAEA report as "unfounded claims by the US [and] Zionists."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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