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The Tough New IAEA Line on Iran

Author: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies
February 19, 2010

The Tough New IAEA Line on Iran - the-tough-new-iaea-line-on-iran


The new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on the Iranian nuclear program brings the agency into line with the long-held positions of most Western intelligence agencies while revealing a few tidbits of new information. It is an important indication that under its new director general, Yukiya Amano, the IAEA will be blunt and forthright with its assessments. It should also strengthen the current drive for new UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran. But the trend that it reflects--a more strident and aggressive Iranian strategy--bodes poorly for the potential success of such measures because it demonstrates an increased Iranian appetite for confrontation.

The report is receiving attention primarily for its sharply articulated concerns about potential weaponization activities in Iran. (Weaponization refers primarily to efforts to turn highly enriched uranium into a bomb or a warhead; while it is not the most difficult part of the Iranian nuclear program, it may be the most unambiguous.) While the IAEA has alluded to such concerns in the past, it has never presented its accusations as strongly as in the new document, and has never elaborated them with the compelling detail that its new report includes.

This part of the IAEA report will not change the views of the United States or its allies, since they already believed the charges that the IAEA has now made publicly. But the report may sway opinion elsewhere, including in Russia; at the very least, it will make it difficult for Russia to backslide on its recent openness to UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran. Credit for that is due to the new IAEA director general. His predecessor, Mohammed ElBaradei, was known to carefully shape his reports based on how he thought they might influence diplomatic efforts with Iran (while still sticking consistently to the truth). Amano appears more likely to simply call things as they clearly are.

Other details in the report, though, confirm that Iran is taking a more aggressive approach to its program. (The best quick technical analysis of the report has been published by the Institute for Science and International Security.) In particular, by transferring almost all of its low-enriched uranium to a facility where it expects to produce uranium enriched to 20 percent--possibly marking an intent to significantly upgrade its ability to enrich material--Iran appears to be asking for an international confrontation.

Under such circumstances, efforts to pressure Iran into constraining its program face lower odds of success, since Iranian leaders may actually believe that sustained confrontation with the West helps them domestically. Measures that directly interfere with Iran's ability to address ongoing technical problems in its program, which include UN sanctions aimed at dual-use goods as well as similar sanctions imposed by smaller coalitions, may have greater impact, at least in the near term.

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