There’s no smoking gun in the IAEA’s latest report update on Iran’s nuclear program, and for certain it’s no “game-changer.” We know now what we knew before, namely, that in addition to Iran’s officially declared program to enrich uranium, in the past—especially before 2003—Iran pursued a web of military-related nuclear technologies. Back in 2007, the US intelligence community reported in a controversial National Intelligence Estimate that Iran had probably halted its pursuit of a bomb by 2004, and since then America’s spy agencies haven’t changed their mind about that. In the IAEA report, there are wisps of information that here and there, since 2003, Iran has taken some steps that are worrying. But the IAEA report doesn’t prove that Iran is pursuing bomb technology, and it provides reassuring data that Iran is not accelerating its enrichment of uranium, that it has not installed the latest, more updated centrifuges that it said it plans to use, that it has not yet activated the underground facility outside Qom, and that it has not diverted any of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) toward a program of producing bomb-quality stuff.
So, as always, the following is true: Iran has enough LEU for what experts says could produce as many as four low-yield weapons, but not an ounce of highly enriched uranium needed for even one bomb. Were Iran to seek to enrich its uranium further, it would have to do so in full view of the IAEA inspectors or, alternately, expel the IAEA and quit the Nonproliferation Treaty. In addition, it isn’t clear, despite the IAEA’s report, that Iran’s scientists have the know-how and the wherewithal to design, manufacture and implement actual bomb technology, even if they did acquire bomb-grade uranium. Nor, as far as is known, does Iran have the means to deliver a bomb even if they had one.
Not exactly an emergency, one requiring helter-skelter Israeli bombing runs or “unprecedented sanctions,” as President Sarkozy of France proposes. There’s plenty of time for negotiations—most likely, even if Iran is secretly trying to make a bomb, it’s half a decade away from having one, at the earliest.
Another thing is clear: years of onerous sanctions, economic isolation, threat of military action, assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists by US and/or Israeli spies and the spreading of an act-of-war computer virus into Iran’s program hasn’t stopped Iran’s program. It hasn’t even slowed it much, as the IAEA report makes clear. As Trita Parsi points out, “Beyond detailing Iran’s foul play, at least pre-2003, the report shows that after two more years of both targeted and indiscriminate sanctions by the United States, the trajectory of the Iranian nuclear program has not changed. The prospects for a tenable solution remains elusive.”
Let’s not be naïve about Iran’s intentions. No one can read Ayatollah Khamenei’s mind—now there’s a scary thought!—but it seems likely that the crusty, bearded old mullah would dearly love a bomb, if only to show the world how strong and powerful Iran is. Whether he and his medieval-minded cronies want an actual bomb, or just the capability to make one, it’s largely a distinction without a difference. But that’s where Iran will be, eventually, unless negotiations succeed. Alternatively, the world will have to learn to deal with a nuclear-capable Iran, just as it’s learned to deal with the emergence of other nuclear states, eventually.
Unfortunately, the IAEA report makes the task of talking to Iran harder, not easier.
Russia, whose ties to Iran make it a critical player in getting Iran to the bargaining table, has slammed the IAEA report, and the reactions to it, as deliberately provocative and counterproductive. (And Russian officials are meeting this week, once again, with senior Iranian officials.) Both Russia and China are frustrated with their Western partners in the P5+1 group, and both countries seem implacably opposed to more sanctions. Says the Russian deputy foreign minister: “The world community will see all additional sanctions against Iran as an instrument of regime change in Tehran. This approach is unacceptable to us, and the Russian side does not intend to consider such a proposal.”
A statement from the Russian foreign ministry called the IAEA report a “compilation of well-known facts that have intentionally been given a politicized intonation” and added that its authors “resort to assumptions and suspicions, and juggle information with the purpose of creating the impression that the Iranian nuclear program has a military component.”
So far, to its credit, the Obama administration hasn’t hyped the IAEA report. Though it’s certain that there are battles within, the White House is reported not to favor sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank, which would have a devastating impact on Iran’s ability to sell its oil (even to US allies such as Japan and South Korea). And it’s not in favor of a military-enforced embargo or blockade of Iran’s oil shipments. The first could send oil prices into the stratosphere, and the second would raise the threat of war to back a blockade.
Maybe it’s too much to expect, in an election year, for Obama to seek to revive talks with Iran, with the goal of trading official US recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium for ironclad inspections and Iran’s adherence to the NPT’s Additional Protocol. Hawks in Congress are trying to push for confrontation, and the leading Republican candidates all want to outsource American Iran policy to Prime Minister Netanyahu.