Background on the IAEA’s Iran Report

I spoke with a well-informed European official, who was willing to provide some background to Friday’s IAEA Iran report on condition of anonymity. Now this person is not necessarily a disinterested observer, so there’s an element of spin to his observations. But I thought they were worth passing on because I’m familiar with his thinking on the matter and I consider it both sincere and convincing.

He disagreed with the suggestion that the report was significant mainly for its difference in nuance to previous reports. The section on “alleged studies” (ie. weaponization programs), he said, was “something major” and included “new language”. He also called attention to yesterday’s followup briefing by the IAEA’s head of safeguards, Olli Heinonen, to the IAEA Board of Governors. Heinonen presented material which reportedly demonstrates that Iran examined warhead designs and weaponization efforts after the 2003 suspension date arrived at in last December’s NIE. My source emphasized that the intelligence for this briefing came from more than one country, but refused to specify further.

With regard to the areas of Iran’s cooperation, he was “not terribly impressed,” and emphasized that the closing of certain issues was misleading, since it did not preclude continued efforts by the IAEA to corroborate Iranian explanations. He also called into question the inspections methodology on the ground, pointing out that while the IAEA report referred to access equivalent to that allowed by the Additional Protocol, it was Iran and not the IAEA that decided on where and when that access would be provided.

He believed the report should help make the case for a third round of UN sanctions, especially to the non-permanent members of the Security Council. (He didn’t mention them specifically, but Libya and South Africa have been identified in press reports as having been previously lukewarm to a sanctions resolution.) On the other hand, he considered it unlikely that it would stiffen the content of the resolution since a draft version has already been floated.

When asked about Russia’s negotiating stance, he suggested that their recent posture and language signals that they are increasingly worried about Iran’s intentions. As for any fallout from the Kosovo standoff on the sanctions negotiations, he stated that the Russians have chosen from early on to separate the two, and that he had the sense that the Iranian dossier “is not something they’ll play around with.”

Again, this is all pretty consistent with the way in which the U.S. and the EU 3 would like to frame the report. But I think it’s revealing that, in the aftermath of the NIE, the European posture (as well as that of the Russians, if to a lesser extent) has grown more resolute, rather than less. Some have argued that this is due to the NIE removing the threat of unilateral American military strikes, thereby reassuring the EU 3 that their negotiating stance won’t serve as the pretext for armed intervention. As a corrective to that opinion, I would point to the increasing centrality of Iran’s weaponization efforts (ie. the very component that the NIE supposedly debunked) to the Western position.

Part of that has to do with American efforts to “flood the zone” by providing the IAEA with intelligence leading up the report’s release. But American intelligence, for obvious reasons, has been somewhat discredited lately. Which suggests to me that the multiple intelligence sources (cited both by my source and by the British ambassador to the IAEA quoted in the BBC article above) are very compelling.

Should that be the case, it also suggests that we’re entering into a very dangerous period for counter-proliferation. One of the consequences of the Iraq WMD intelligence failure was to discredit American (and British) intelligence. That, in turn, has played a role in Mohamed ElBaradei’s handling of the Iranian dossier, which has been criticized by some as overtly political, with an emphasis on avoiding a repeat of the Iraq debacle. So if the intelligence on the Iranian dossier now undermines the IAEA’s credibility not only as an independent, but as an effective oversight agency, it leaves an authority vacuum in terms of nuclear non-proliferation. Something to keep in mind as this story continues to unfold.