It is a popular parlour game in Washington’s corridors of power and European chancelleries to deride Mohamed ElBaradei as a quixotic bureaucrat determined to subvert the western strategy of restraining Iran’s nuclear programme. The latest International Atomic Energy Agency report suggesting progress has been made by Iran is quietly disparaged by the Bush administration as another clean pass for the rash theocracy. The point that Mr ElBaradei’s critics miss is that he is judiciously achieving the goals that they seemingly desire—the disarmament of the Islamic Republic.
The IAEA process, particularly the adoption last year of a “work plan” to investigate suspect activities, has been criticised by many Americans. The latest report shows, however, that process is working. The investigation and inspections—even the limited ones the IAEA is currently able to conduct—have, in effect, shut down direct weapons work and resolved many of the outstanding historical questions.
One of the main issues that triggered headlines in 2006 was the IAEA discovery of traces of highly-enriched uranium on machinery that Iran said it was using to produce only low-enriched uranium for fuel. The new report accepts Iran’s evidence that the traces came from contamination in Pakistan—the country that sold Iran the machines. The agency considers this question resolved, but wants more information to verify it. Similarly, the agency accepts Iran’s evidence that equipment it acquired, such as balancing machines and magnets that could be used for nuclear weapons research, is now being used for legitimate civilian purposes. It is also satisfied that experiments with polonium-210 (that can be used as a trigger for an explosive nuclear chain reaction) were not part of a larger weapon project.
The main outstanding issues relate to evidence provided by the US from a laptop computer said to have come from Iran containingdocuments such as a design for a missile warhead and detailed nuclear weapon-related studies. The report gives the most complete public description yet of the laptop’s contents. Iran dismisses the documents as “fabrications.” But the IAEA wants more information “critical to an assessment of a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear programme.”
In sum, the IAEA investigations have produced enough circumstantial evidence to support the view that Iran probably conducted nuclear weapons research in the past. But the evidence to date also indicates, as the US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran concluded last November, that Iran stopped this direct weapons work. The path now is to recognise this success, deepen it, find a way for Iran to come clean safely on its past work and to prevent Iran from developing capabilities that could allow it to produce weapon material in the next decade.
Mr ElBaradei has disproved the notion that Iran’s nuclear strategy is immutable. Despite its apparent solidarity, there are divisions within the theocratic regime on the urgency of the nuclear programme. It is true that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his militant allies’ calculations are susceptible to neither offers of incentives nor threats of force. However, for the more tempered members of the ruling elite, the nuclear issue is considered within the context of international relations. Indeed, the fact that Iran has suspended the weapon design component of its programme since 2003 and is largely complying with the IAEA “work plan” reflects the propensity of the state to adhere to certain limits.
The best means of diminishing the hardliners is for the US and its European allies to offer Iran a chance for a resumed relationship. The prospect of diplomatic ties with America and integration into the global economy will motivate pragmatic elements of the theocracy. Iran will have an incentive to restrain its nuclear ambitions and confine its programme within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The US and Europe are right to be concerned about Iran’s nuclear plans. However, a strategy of employing threats of economic strangulation and Security Council resolutions has only empowered the more reactionary elements that thrive on western animosity. Instead of sanctions, the west should appreciate that a nuanced diplomacy of reconciliation could both regulate Iran’s nuclear programme and help stabilise the Middle East. It is the much maligned Mr ElBaradei that has paved the way for success.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.