A new report released Tuesday by the International Atomic Energy Agency makes clear that Tehran has carried out extensive research into making a nuclear weapon. But it does not explain what the United States and the rest of the world should do. 

The Iranian government, according to U.S. intelligence officials, has not yet decided to produce and test an actual nuclear device — even as it amasses the knowledge and materials to do so. So U.S. policy going forward should be to convince Iran that it will be better off not crossing that threshold.


It may be tempting to raise the option of military strikes. But attacking Iran would not destroy its scientists’ expertise, and could provide a rationale for Tehran to accelerate its efforts – much as the Israeli destruction of an Iraq reactor in 1981 led Saddam Hussein to redouble his quest for nuclear arms.

Bombing Iran would also likely trigger regional mayhem, including attacks on Israel by Iran’s allies. It could cause oil prices to spike and rally Iranians around what is an increasingly unpopular government.

Instead, the Obama administration should use the IAEA report, given Tuesday to the agency board, to double down on diplomacy. Here’s how:

1) According to the report, Iran has carried out extensive research into how to trigger a nuclear explosion, build a bomb small enough to fit on a missile and capable of withstanding the “various stresses that would be encountered on being launched and travelling on a ballistic trajectory to a target.” The report states that the information comes from a wide variety of independent sources – including a foreign scientist who helped Iran on high explosives – and that some of the activity has occurred since 2003, when Iran is said to have temporarily halted the program in response to U.S. and international pressures.

According to Olli Heinonen, the former IAEA deputy director, there have been no real discussions between the agency and Tehran about its military research since 2008. The IAEA should use the new information to persuade Iran to come clean.

2) The Obama administration and its allies should also wield these findings to convince Iran’s main trading partners – particularly China – to enforce tough sanctions already on the books. U.N. Security Council resolutions forbid selling Iran materials that can be used in its nuclear and missile programs; and allow suspicious shipments and air cargo to be intercepted. China can do a better job of this.

3). U.S. sanctions have had a major effect on investment in Iran’s energy sector and on its ability to accept hard currency for the oil and gas exports on which its economy relies. The sanctions have put so much pressure on the Iranian treasury that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – not known for admitting internal problems – recently told Iranian parliament members, “Our banks cannot make international transactions.”

However, Congress and the Obama administration should resist calls to expand those sanctions to the Central Bank of Iran. U.S. allies would not go along with this measure, which would adversely affect ordinary Iranians and roil international energy and financial markets at a time when the global economy can least afford it.

4) Washington and its partners should provide Iran with a clearer sense of what the international community would accept in terms of uranium enrichment and civilian nuclear activity — if Iran clarifies its behavior and accepts stringent safeguards against diversion to weapons. The Obama administration has been quick to pivot from talking to punishing. Iran needs to know that sanctions are not an end in themselves.

There is understandable frustration that sanctions have not forced Tehran to curb its nuclear program. As Congress and the administration contemplate further measures to increase pressure on Iran, however, they should focus on improving implementation of existing sanctions that target nuclear proliferation and Iranian officials rather than Iranians in general.

They should be aware of the unintended consequences of broader sanctions – which could upset world oil markets, entrench illegal practices and unsavory actors in Iran and alienate middle class Iranians, those most supportive of improved ties with the West.

Iran’s nuclear program has produced much demagoguery and dangerous speculation. Dozens of other countries, however, have conducted nuclear research without becoming nuclear weapons states. It’s not too late to dissuade Iran from building and testing a nuclear weapon.

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation. This piece was originally published in Politico.

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