Iran may be building an atomic bomb, or at least developing all the technology needed to do so, but there are at least two components of the soon-to-be-released report from the International Atomic Energy Agency that deserve skeptical treatment.
The first, initially reported by the Washington Post, involves is certain to revive memories of Colin Powell’s 2003 address to the UN Security Council, in which he presented detailed evidence, including photographs, of what he said were mobile laboratories used by Iraq to develop biological weapons. No such labs existed. In this case, the Post reports, the IAEA has “acquired satellite photos of a bus-size steel container” used to field test “the kinds of high-precision conventional explosives used to trigger a nuclear chain-reaction.” The IAEA may be right, but those photographs ought to raise hackles among experts who were burned once, and badly, over Iraq’s nonexistent WMD program.
The second questionable piece of evidence involves aid reportedly provided to Iran by a former Soviet nuclear scientist. Reports the Post today:
According to the intelligence provided to the IAEA, key assistance in both areas was provided by Vyacheslav Danilenko, a former Soviet nuclear scientist who was contracted in the mid-1990s by Iran’s Physics Research Center, a facility linked to the country’s nuclear program. Documents provided to the U.N. officials showed that Danilenko offered assistance to the Iranians over at least five years, giving lectures and sharing research papers on developing and testing an explosives package that the Iranians apparently incorporated into their warhead design, according to two officials with access to the IAEA’s confidential files.
Maybe so, but this was in the 1990s, and it’s unclear that program, and that effort, is still active. The issue for the IAEA is whether or not Iran, today, has an ongoing program to militarize its nuclear program.
When it comes to Iran’s program, it seems more than likely that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard team that runs the program do indeed want nuclear weapons. Why else would Iran risk international opprobrium, crippling economic sanctions and the threat of an attack by Israel and/or the United States, just to develop a civilian nuclear program, especially since Iran doesn’t even have the rudiments yet of a nuclear power industry to supply electricity to its cities and factories?
That, of course, doesn’t mean that the hawks clamoring for an attack on Iran don’t deserve ridicule. As David Sanger reported in the New York Times this week, inside the Obama administration there are intense efforts underway to develop a containment strategy for a post-nuclear Iran, which is exactly right.
And, as an unprecedented joint statement by Russia and China makes clear, confronting Iran directly with sanctions and isolation is more likely to put Iran’s back up against the wall and cause it to accelerate, not slow down, its program. “Russia and China are of the opinion that such kind of report will only drive Iran into a corner,” the two countries wrote to the UN, in advance of the IAEA report.
Expect a lot of alarmist rhetoric as the IAEA report ripples around the media. It’s possible that the IAEA report will contain some new and damning evidence, smoking-gun style, of Iran’s program to build a bomb, but it’s not likely. But the usual suspects will make the usual noises, the Obama administration will talk tough about more (useless) sanctions, hawks in Congress will push forward with legislation to further isolate Iran—such as the current bill to outlaw talks between US and Iranian diplomats—and worse. Fact is, the White House doesn’t want war with Iran, and there won’t be one.