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The New Iranian Nuclear Gambit

Nov 30 , 2011

On November 8, 2011, the IAEA Board of Governors released its latest report on the “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of the UN Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran”.  To many who have predicted the post-releasing situation as more prone to a military strike by either the US or Israel against Iran, they would probably find the report disappointing as this IAEA document has virtually decreased, rather than increased, the likelihood of an immediate military conflict to settle the Iranian nuclear issue.

On the one hand, this report seems indeed alarming, as the IAEA has, for the first time in a decade, charged Iran to have launched a nuclear weapons program in the past.  In this 25-page report, the IAEA presented evidences in twelve categories to conclude with confidence that Iran used to stage its nuclear weapons program – it did so prior to 2003.  Though this finding doesn’t equate to Iran conducting a nuclear weapons program presently, it is already serious if Iran is found guilty by lying to the IAEA for so long for such a crucial matter.

On the other hand, this report has stricken a balance.  Even if Iran is caught to have developed a nuclear weapons program, the IAEA has, in the same report, stated that the Iranian authority ordered to close or suspend its nuclear weapons program in 2003.  In another word, even if Iran has to be punished, it is unwarranted to execute a capital punishment, as Teheran had not been carrying on a nuclear program for weapons purposes for a while since 2003.

Clearly, this report has echoed a 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) which concluded the same – Iran was believed with confidence to have operated a nuclear weapons program prior to 2003, and since 2003, the program had been suspended.  Though Iran could re-open it later, the 2007 US NIE could not find confidently that Iran was doing so at that time.  That NIE report disagreed with President George W. Bush’s belief that Iran was still developing nuclear weapons in 2007, and helped eased tension to some extent between the US and Iran.

With Yukiya Amano’s assuming Director Generalship of the IAEA in 2009, this international organization has taken a more pro-US stance – it is largely understood that the US has provided most, if not all, of the source materials which the IAEA has presented to challenge Iran this time.  Therefore, Iran would naturally discredit the IAEA for working with America too closely.  However, such US classified sources still don’t brand Iran as developing nuclear weapons from 2003-2007.  Obviously Iran may be sanctioned if it is proven to have seriously violated its commitment to the NPT – an international treaty asking its non-nuclear-weapons member states voluntarily to relinquish nuclear weapons option after joining it.  But such sanctions have to be based on facts, not merely on any single country’s unilateral accusation against Iran.

The IAEA’s charging of Iran certainly renders more authority to this business, though the IAEA and Iran, as well as the international community, have to allow for a fair chance to clarify the suspicion.  Even under the worst case, a war is absolutely not warranted just because Iran may have developed a nuclear weapons program before 2003 and may have continued to lie to the IAEA since 2003.  As long as Iran has genuinely ended its nuclear program that may have violated its treaty commitment, it shall receive both punitive measures and commending for its self-correction.

Then, the tricky issue is if Iran has been pushing the nuclear envelope after 2007.  The US NIE of 2007 certainly didn’t foretell exactly what Iran would do after 2007.  Nevertheless, this IAEA report points out that Iran has not been in full compliance with its commitment to the Additional Protocol under the IAEA enhanced nuclear safeguards system which allows greater access to its nuclear facilities and personnel, which can help assure if Iran is in good standing as a non-nuclear weapons member of the NPT treaty.

Not all countries failing to be obliged to the Additional Protocol must be developing nuclear weapons.  But if a member state of the NPT is truly committed to nuclear weapons nonproliferation, there is no need not to fully commit to what the government has already legally subscribed to.  While Iranian government persistently promised not to develop a military nuclear program, it has to permit the IAEA to have full access to Iran’s nuclear wherewithal and personnel so as to clear any suspicions of its current program and past behavior.  By refusing to cooperate Iran could only increase existing concerns that in turn would add to pressure against Teheran.  Otherwise, by cooperating to be fully inspected per Additional Protocol, the Iranian government could either clear such suspicion and restore its right of civilian nuclear program including uranium enrichment under certain level, or be verified of the true nature of an entire or parts of nuclear program which is not for peaceful use.

Therefore, this latest IAEA report has presented three findings: Iran was quite surely developing a nuclear weapons program prior to 2003; it ended/suspended the program in 2003; and since 2008, Iran has obstructed the IAEA’s full access which has led to this Vienna-based international nuclear watchdog to suspect that Teheran has somehow revived parts of its nuclear weapons program.

When a war punishing Iran’s nuclear behavior before 2003 is unwarranted, certain actions now to let Iran to keep its words are necessary.  Iran absolutely is entitled to civilian nuclear power development, but it has to honor its promises that such development is solely for economic benefits.  Allowing the IAEA to have full access per Additional Protocol is a reasonable price that Iran has to assure the world that its nuclear development is innocent.

So far, the US and Israel have been muted in striking against Iran since the release of the new report.  However both have strongly demanded to impose tougher sanctions against Iran.  Both Russia and China are against nuclear weapons development by Iran, should it have done so, but Russia is strongly against imposing new sanctions.  Realizing that all existing UNSC resolutions have failed to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment program, indeed it is hard to believe that any additional sanctions would have better chances to turn such a deadlock around.

Therefore there exists a dilemma – given Iran’s refusal to accept various relevant UNSC resolutions, it is intolerable to see that Iran moves ahead with its nuclear program with more credible suspicions unveiled.  Meantime, the Obama administration isn’t in a position to wage a new war right before its reelection campaign.  Ironically this concern renders Iran an opportunity to push ahead when the US government is hard to make a tough decision.  To avoid such a window of decision-making vulnerability to be tapped by Iran, the IAEA has worked with the US government to increase the international visibility of the Iranian nuclear issue, so as to place higher pressures on Iran.

Given the above calculation, it is highly critical for the Iranian leadership to make its choice – to choose compromise by re-permitting IAEA’s full access, or choose denial which would lead to an avoidable armed conflict, likely after the US presidential election.                                                                                                                                                                         

Shen Dingli is Executive Dean of Institute of International Studies and Director of Center for American Studies, Fudan University

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