IAEA: Revenge of the Nerds

There’s been a lot of reaction to yesterday’s WaPo article about a technical presention to diplomatic representatives of IAEA member states that followed up on the IAEA’s Iran report. Some have interpreted the presentation, which revealed documentary evidence of Iranian weaponization efforts up to and slightly after 2003, as a vindication of IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei, who had previously been accused of carrying Tehran’s water.

So I thought I’d point out that last week, a well-informed source I spoke to following the delivery of the report flagged the presentation — which significantly was given by Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s head of safeguards — as evidence of the internal tension between the technical wing of the IAEA (ie. the inspectors on the ground) and the political wing (ie. ElBaradei and his circle). According to my source, Heinonen’s presentation grew out of the sentiment among the inspection teams that their “work is not faithfully reflected in ElBaradei’s statements.” He didn’t say it explicitly, but the clear implication was that the followup presentation was an attempt to end run ElBaradei, who presents the IAEA’s reports to the Board of Governors, and get the incriminating evidence directly into the record.

He directed my attention to an article in Le Monde from two weeks previous. Here’s the key graf:

Within the IAEA, very strong pressures have appeared. . .

According to a source within the Agency, who requested anonymity, the heads of the inspections teams are “unhappy” and privately express their “incomprehension” of what they perceive as Mr. ElBaradei’s intention to give Tehran a free hand. “He wants to close the file,” the official regretted, “despite incoherences that persist in the explanations furnished by the Iranians, and despite the fact that the information that they’ve delivered isn’t complete.” (Translated from the French.)

I didn’t emphasize the point because I thought the allegation was already a matter of public record. But the reaction to yesterday’s WaPo story seems to warrant a re-visit.

A word, too about the NIE, because there’s also been something of a dismissive attitude towards people who worried that it might have an adverse impact on international resolve to maintain pressure on Iran. I’d point out that the overwhelming popular reaction to the NIE was to ridicule the Bush administration’s hawkish posture and absolve the Iranian program of any weaponization intentions. The problem wasn’t with the former, but the latter which, by conflating a suspension of weaponization programs with the renunciation of a desire for weapons, amounted to a significant misreading of the report’s implications.

Moreover, with regards to the IAEA and verification of NPT compliance, the previous existence of the weaponization program as well as Iran’s refusal to be forthcoming about it amount to major violations of its NPT obligations. So if the third round of sanctions is back on track, I’d argue that it’s because of an intense lobbying effort that included flooding the zone with intelligence to refocus attention on the very serious violations that were obscured by the impact (if not the actual content) of the NIE.