As Iran continues a slow march toward potential nuclear weapons capability, diplomatic action to contain the programme is likely to shift to the 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 programme are looking toward the IAEA’s Nov. 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 honest 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 organisation, 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 Sep. 12 that, "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 IPS that that comment by Amano triggered speculation that he will provide significant new information about Iran in the next report to the board, due out around Nov. 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 U.N. 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 programme.
"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 applications.
The U.S. 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 programme had not resumed through mid-2007. A 2011 intelligence estimate appears to have been less categorical but has not been made public.
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 of death".
Iran has called the material forgeries while admitting that some of the information about 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 programme, told a conference at the Woodrow Wilson Center Sep. 30 that Iran appears to have dismantled some of the units doing weapons research in 2003 and reassembled elements of the programme "below the radar screen", focusing on work that also can have civilian purposes.
He added that "Amano and other officials say there is increasing evidence Iran resumed weaponisation 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 publicising 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 U.S.," Walsh told IPS. "They need to say what they’ve got."
The new focus on the IAEA comes at a time when other diplomatic efforts have waned.
Several Iranian officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have said recently that Iran would stop producing uranium enriched to 20 percent 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 kilogrammes of this moderately enriched uranium, which is perilously close to weapons grade fuel.
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 U.S. and its allies should "take Ahmadinejad at his word" and "provide Iran with 50 kilograms of fuel, without any conditions."
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".
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council and member of its Iran Task Force, former senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today and former Mideast correspondent for The Economist. This article originally appeared on ipsnews.net. Photo credit: Getty Images.