What’s New in the U.N. Nuclear Report?

Michael Adler
  • What is new in the latest report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency about Iran’s controversial nuclear program?
The report takes the U.N. nuclear watchdog's accounting of Iran's nuclear program to a whole new level. It is the first time the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has provided so many details as well as a coherent narrative of how Iran has allegedly done work on learning how to make an atomic bomb.
Among key findings are:
·       Iran has continued weaponization work since 2003, despite the U.S. intelligence estimate         that Tehran stopped such research at that time
·       Iran had a secret project to make enriched uranium
·       Iran has designs for how to make the type of uranium metal needed for a bomb. It had             also done dry runs, not including nuclear material, on how to make this metal
·       Iran may have more advanced plans on how to put a bomb together than previously                 believed
·       Iran had foreign help in working on the detonators needed for an implosion-type nuclear           device
·       Iran did computer simulations to see if it could make an implosion bomb work. It based           this on high-explosive tests using tungsten, a non-nuclear material
·       Iran has changed the names and places of organizations doing weapons work in order to         avoid detection. But many of the staff members remain the same, including the director of Iran's nuclear weaponization effort, Mohsen Fakhrizadah.
  • Does this report prove that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons or not?
No, in the end it does not prove Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon, even though the IAEA presents a damning case. In its conclusion, the report says only that the agency has "serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program." It also reports that "the information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device." This falls short of the IAEA concluding that Iran is "very likely" to have a secret program, which is the furthest the agency will go in saying that the evidence is proven and valid.
In addition, the IAEA says it is still waiting for Iran to answer its questions about the information. So the investigation has not ended. 
It’s not a document you could take to the president and say “We must attack Iran.” It’s not enough for military action. It’s not enough of an incremental increase.
  • What does this mean for possible further sanctions on Iran or other international action?
The report should boost U.S. efforts to convince other nations, especially Russia and China, to support stronger sanctions. The mass of data, and above all the way the IAEA puts it together in a clear and comprehensive picture, will be hard to ignore.
But both Russia and China, which are both veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, have consistently worked to tone down sanctions. They will remain a tough sell for Washington.
  • Does this increase the likelihood that Israel or the U.S. might use a military option against Iran?
Almost certainly not--at least for now. The report fits current U.S. policy, which is designed to pressure Iran and get it to the negotiating table. Washington's goal is to settle the issue with diplomacy, to avoid having to face the choice of bombing Iran or letting Iran get the bomb. Since Iran is not making weapon-grade uranium and apparently not actually assembling a bomb, there is still time for diplomacy. One point: The IAEA report does not include assessments on how far away Iran is from making a nuclear weapon or from adapting one to fit as a warhead on top of its Shahab 3 missile. Estimates about these two steps are crucial to calculate the state of Iran's nuclear weapons capability.

Israel also backs the sanctions approach, although it would like to see much tougher measures, such as moving against Iran's Central Bank. Short of an imminent existential threat, Israel is highly unlikely to attack Iran if the United States opposes a military option. 

Click here to read Michael Adler's chapter on Iran and the IAEA in the Iran Primer.

To read the IAEA report on Iran, click here. 

Michael Adler, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, formerly covered the International Atomic Energy Agency for Agence France-Presse.


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