With the exception of one potentially important nugget about the possibility of Iran drawing on “foreign expertise” in conducting experiments on a detonator suitable for an implosion-type nuclear weapon, the IAEA's September 15, 2008 report offers little that is different from its previous report.
In many ways, it effectively confirms that there is little else the IAEA can do in probing into Iran’s nuclear program or, given the steady progress on the enrichment front reported, of checking it unless there is a breakthrough in the broader negotiations that have been going on between Iran and the United Nations Security Council’s permanent members plus Germany.
The reference to foreign expertise constitutes a mere two-line reference in a 6 page document. The details of the information obtained by the agency have apparently been relayed to Iran whose clarifications, or lack thereof, would presumably constitute a part of the Agency’s next report. Beyond this new information, the report is a testimony to things remaining the same.
First and foremost, this report, like the previous ones, states the Agency’s ability “to verify non-diversion of declared nuclear material and activities.” This is a clear acknowledgment that Iran has remained committed to its Safeguards Agreement in “providing access to declared nuclear material and providing the required nuclear material accounting reports in connection with declared nuclear material and activities.” In this regard, the report is a flat denial of recent unsubstantiated claims about the disappearance of nuclear material from Iran’s facilities.
Second, the IAEA continues to be unhappy with Iran’s refusal to implement the Additional Protocol beyond an ad-hoc manner. It wants more intrusive inspections. At times the issue is couched in the language of “transparency measures” that Iran needs to take but the bottom line is IAEA’s desire for Iran to implement the Additional Protocol.
This issue remains part and parcel of IAEA’s catch-22 predicament with Iran. Iran voluntary implemented the Additional Protocol in the past before Iran’s case was referred to the Security Council and has offered in previous negotiations to make it permanent but not until Iran’s case is removed from the Security Council. In short, Iran has remained steadfast in its position that the IAEA will not get what it wants from Iran in order to do its job of inspecting Iran until the Agency becomes the sole judge of Iran’s nuclear program.
A similar dynamic is at play regarding the IAEA’s unhappiness with Iran’s refusal to provide preliminary design information Iran had previously agreed to provide - during the course of negotiations with the EU-3 as a voluntary, non-binding measure - about nuclear facilities it plans to build. On this voluntary commitment, like the temporary suspension of enrichment and voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol, Iran continues to engage in a calculated pull back in protest to the Security Council referral.
As is the case with many other countries, without the Additional Protocol, the IAEA cannot draw a conclusion about the absence of nuclear activities but this is not the same thing as suspecting undeclared activities and material. In fact, as mentioned above, the report is clear that so far the IAEA has not encountered evidence of undeclared activities.
Even regarding the issues related to the alleged studies and “possible military dimensions of Iran’s program,” which from IAEA’s perspective now effectively constitute the only unanswered aspects of Iran’s past activities, the Agency is careful to say has little information “on the actual design or manufacture by Iran of nuclear components of a nuclear weapon or of key components, such as initiators…Nor has the Agency detected the actual use of nuclear material in connection with the alleged studies.”
Tehran considers the alleged studies found on a laptop a fabrication and has said so to the skeptical IAEA. Being concerned about the ease with which electronic copies can be doctored, Tehran has also insisted that it will not provide further information regarding the alleged studies until Western powers allow the IAEA to provide Iran hard copies of the intelligence for examination.
But the IAEA clearly wants more from Iran, including access to documents and individual scientists and in this report has specified alternative ways Iran and the IAEA can go about clarifying the issue. It is doubtful that Iran will be more responsive in the next round, particularly now that the fate of a new Security Council resolution is up in the air, partly due to US-Russia conflict over Georgia but more perhaps because of the exhaustion of a so far ineffective route.
The only thing the report no longer leaves in doubt is that Iran is making significant progress on developing and improving the efficiency of its centrifuges. It is now running about 3,800 centrifuges, an increase of several hundred in the past four months. It has also boosted the efficiency of its centrifuges, allowing them to be fed more material and face fewer crashes. Iran’s program still cannot be considered fast-paced or based on urgency but does seem to have overcome some of the technical challenges it was facing. As such, the slow pace may suggest more of a choice, perhaps not to alarm Iran’s interlocutors more than necessary.
With an exhausted Security Council process that has so far failed to prevent Iran from its slow and yet steady progress towards mastering enrichment and an inspection process that has effectively reached its end in terms of the further prodding of Iran to do more, it is becoming evident that something else needs to be done to push Iran towards accepting a more rigorous inspection regime. With its September report the IAEA is once again making abundantly clear that this “something else” is beyond its capabilities and will require a transformation in the global political environment within which Iran’s nuclear program can be satisfactorily addressed.
This commentary was originally posted here.