The IAEA’s Iran Report

The IAEA’s latest Iran report is available here (via Arms Control Wonk). As Laura Rozen notes, the good news is that Iran appears to be experiencing significant technical difficulties in its already existing LEU enrichment efforts. But that’s about where the good news ends.

Now, part of the difficulty in fully registering the bad news is that a lot of it involves technical details that are more the province of the ACW gang than political analysts. But another complicating factor is the diplomatic language used by the IAEA report itself. For obvious reasons, a technical report cannot categorically define or definitively condemn suspect or opaque activity. So the report offers Iran — and some observers who have let their justified concerns over an ill-advised military attack color their reading of it — a comfortable margin of convenient deniability.

The tip-off, though, is a comparative reading with the IAEA’s previous Iran reports. And if you’ve read through them over the past few years, even subtle shifts of language jump off the page.

To begin with, compared to previous reports, this one includes a far greater amount of background information to add weight and urgency to each area of Iranian non-compliance. As a result, it reads far more like an indictment than a request for clarification.

Perhaps nowhere is that more pronounced than in the section on weaponization, which lists in far greater detail the long list of suspect activity. The language regarding the intelligence on which these concerns are based is also significantly less tentative:

The information available to the Agency in connection with these outstanding issues is extensive and has been collected from a variety of sources over time. It is also broadly consistent and credible in terms of the technical detail, the time frame in which the activities were conducted and the people and organizations involved. Altogether, this raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.

And as noticeable is the absence of this caveat, which appeared in previous reports, up to and including the one from last November (.pdf):

In this context, it would be helpful if Member States which have provided documentation to the Agency would agree to share more of that documentation with Iran, as appropriate.

But there are also new elements in this report, relating to the Iranian decision to enrich to 20 percent and the new facility at Qom (known as the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant). Most press coverage of the 20 percent enrichment track relates to the technological advance it represents, putting Tehran closer to a weapons-grade enrichment capacity.

What the IAEA report makes clear, though, is that it also represents a significant verification problem. Apparently, the Iranians transferred their entire stock of LEU (1,950 kg) to the Pilot FEP at Natanz. That alone is suspect, since it exceeds the amount needed to supply its medical reactor. (The fuel swap agreement, by comparison, called for 1,200 kg of enriched uranium to be shipped abroad.)

But as importantly, they did so without the required notification time that would have allowed the IAEA to implement adequate safeguard procedures. As a result, although the enriched uranium continues to be under IAEA seal, the agency is no longer in a position to verify against diversion of known material:

While the nuclear material at PFEP, as well as the cascade area and the feed and withdrawal stations, remain subject to Agency containment and surveillance, additional measures need to be put in place to ensure the Agency’s continuing ability to verify the non-diversion of the nuclear material at PFEP.

Later, the report concludes:

While the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran, Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the Agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.

That is a subtle but significant shift from November’s report, where the concern centered on the agency’s inability, absent an Additional Protocol, to credibly confirm ” . . . the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.”

With regard to the new facility at Qom, the report cites credible intelligence furnished by member states that design of the plant began in 2006, and not the second half of 2007 as Iran has claimed. That would place it at a time when, even by Tehran’s contested claims, the Iranians were still obligated to inform the IAEA of all nuclear-related plans and activity.

It’s possible that the new language in this report reflects the change in directors at the IAEA, this being the first Iran report issued under the tenure of Yukiya Amano. Nevertheless, the change in language is noticeable and significant, and represents a new phase in the political elements of the standoff. Iran is maintaining its policy of strategic ambiguity, but it is becoming increasingly reasonable to assume that its nuclear program is indeed designed to provide it with a strategic deterrent, whether latent or active.

That in itself should not determine policy in as fatalistic a manner as Iran hawks might argue. But as Nikolas Gvosdev notes in his WPR column today, advocates of containment need to clear-sightedly address the ways in which an Iranian nuclear deterrent alters the calculus and raises the costs of American regional policy. Because unless this report serves to shift the political momentum, the inertia of this crisis is leading to either war or a nuclear Iran.