Pressure builds on Iran at nuclear watchdog
By Barbara Slavin
WASHINGTON - As Iran continues a slow march toward potential nuclear weapons
capability, diplomatic action to contain the program is likely to shift to the
United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose director
general, Yukiya Amano, has taken a harder line than his predecessor about
alleged military research by Iran's nuclear scientists.
Experts on the Iranian nuclear program are looking toward the IAEA's November
17-18 board meeting in Vienna for new criticism of Tehran, including a possible
finding that Iran has not complied with its obligations to be open about
alleged nuclear studies with a military dimension.
Since he took office in late 2009, Amano, a non-proliferation specialist and
Japan's former representative to the nuclear
watchdog organization, has spoken much more explicitly and insistently than his
Egyptian predecessor, Mohamed ElBaradei, about alleged Iranian studies of
warhead designs and ways to initiate nuclear explosions.
Amano told the IAEA board on September 12, "The agency is increasingly
concerned about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed
nuclear-related activities involving military related organizations, including
activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about
which the agency continues to receive new information."
Amano added, "In the near future, I hope to set out in greater detail the basis
for the agency's concerns so that all member states are fully informed."
A Western diplomat in Vienna told Inter Press Service (IPS) that that comment
by Amano triggered speculation that he would provide significant new
information about Iran in the next report to the board, due out around November
9. The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that member states,
led by Western countries, might use the material as a basis to find Iran in
non-compliance with its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Such a finding was first reached in 2006 and resulted in the issue being taken
up by the UN Security Council, which has passed six resolutions against Iran,
including four that specify sanctions. Another resolution seems unlikely now,
given Russian and Chinese resistance.
However, the diplomat said that a new finding would increase pressure on
governments to tighten implementation of punitive measures already in place.
These include an embargo on arms sales to and from Iran and tight export
controls over materials that Iran could use for its nuclear program, which it
has consistently argued is for peaceful purposes.
"This issue has been marked by incremental escalation on all sides," the
diplomat said, referring both to sanctions and Iran's slow but steady expansion
of uranium enrichment and other technologies with potential weapons
The US intelligence community, in a 2007 estimate, said it had "high
confidence" that Iran had halted weapons-related nuclear work in 2003 and
"medium confidence" that the program had not resumed through mid-2007. A 2011
intelligence estimate appears to have been less categorical but has not been
Michael Adler, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International
Center for Scholars, said that the IAEA was receiving a considerable amount of
new information to augment documents and other materials smuggled out of Iran
several years ago by the wife of an Iranian spying for Germany and later
gathered by foreign intelligence agencies on a computer nicknamed "the laptop
Iran has called the material forgeries while admitting that some of the
information about the alleged studies is correct. Olli Heinonen, former deputy
director of the IAEA, says that there have been no detailed discussions about
the allegations since the summer of 2008.
Adler, who covered the IAEA as a reporter for Agence France-Presse and who is
writing a book on the Iranian nuclear program, told a conference at the Woodrow
Wilson Center on September 30 that Iran appears to have dismantled some of the
units doing weapons research in 2003 and reassembled elements of the program
"below the radar screen", focusing on work that also can have civilian
He added that "Amano and other officials say there is increasing evidence Iran
resumed weaponization work after 2003 and especially after 2006".
Jim Walsh, a non-proliferation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, says there is a danger that the IAEA could lose credibility if it
takes too tough a line against Iran without publicizing hard evidence to back
up its claims.
"They could lose access and make a diplomatic solution more difficult if they
are seen as a handmaiden of the US," Walsh told IPS. "They need to say what
The new focus on the IAEA comes at a time when other diplomatic efforts have
Several Iranian officials, including President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, have said
recently that Iran would stop producing uranium enriched to 20% of a key
isotope, U-235, if foreign countries would provide Iran with the fuel for a
reactor that makes medical isotopes. Iran has amassed more than 70 kilograms of
this moderately enriched uranium, which is perilously close to weapons grade
Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the Federation of American Scientists
(FAS), and Charles Ferguson, president of FAS, wrote recently in the
International Herald Tribune that the US and its allies should "take
Ahmadinejad at his word" and "provide Iran with 50 kilograms of fuel, without
The two said that the move would be "a humanitarian gesture [that] would buy
Washington good will with the Iranian people [while] curtailing Iran's
enrichment activities and potentially cutting the Gordian knot that has stalled
the West's nuclear negotiations with Iran."
However, the Barack Obama administration appears to have rejected the new
proposal out of hand.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters last week that
"Ahmadinejad makes a lot of empty promises". She described the latest offer as
"a diversion from the real issues".