The Debate

IAEA Notes Iran Defiance

A new IAEA report raises further concerns over possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.

The latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s nuclear program will have done nothing to ease concerns over Tehran’s intentions – or to quell the growing drumbeat for military action.

“The Agency continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program,” Reuters quotes the confidential report as saying today.

“The confidential IAEA report showed that Iran has, since November last year, tripled output of uranium refined to a level that brings it significantly closer to potential bomb material,” it reported an official “familiar with the agency's probe” as saying. “The IAEA said Iran had now produced nearly 110 kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent since early 2010. Western experts say about 250 kg is needed for a nuclear weapon, although it would need to be enriched much further.”

Earlier this week, Iran rejected a request by the IAEA to inspect the Parchin military complex near Tehran, which is suspected of housing a secret underground nuclear facility.

“It is disappointing that Iran did not accept our request to visit Parchin during the first or second meetings,” IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said in a statement. “We engaged in a constructive spirit, but no agreement was reached.”

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One of the big questions is why Iran is being so evasive if, as it claims, it is developing its nuclear capacity merely for peaceful purposes. I asked Thomas Nichols, a professor in the National Security Affairs department at the U.S. Naval War College, this very question.

“There could be other reasons, including pride or sheer obstinacy,” he told me. “Remember, Saddam Hussein did exactly the same thing, playing the same kinds of ‘you can look here, but you can't look there’ kinds of games, for reasons we can only guess at.”

But he added: “Of course, Occam's Razor says that you should start with the simplest explanation, so if they're barring inspectors, it's probably because they have things they don't want inspected.”

Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon officialand scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed that there’s a good chance Iran is simply stalling.

“Iran’s strategy is to waste time. By sending this conflicting message, it’s setting the agenda for talks,” he told me. “If Western officials spend all their time discussing IAEA access to facilities – something they’ve discussed before – then they won’t be discussing the bigger picture, and so Iran can continue its enrichment apace.”

As I mentioned earlier this week, there appears to be a power struggle going on between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but Rubin said that this shouldn’t disguise the fact that all sides appear to support Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“The factional struggle is nothing new; indeed, it seems the rule rather than the exception throughout the Islamic Republic’s political history. The Iranians often blame factional struggle for deadlocks if not betrayal.

“That said, there’s unity among factions for Iran as a nuclear power. The only disagreement between hardliners and reformers seems to be a fierce debate about who should get more credit for Iran’s nuclear progress. Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ahmadinejad all seem to want to be crowned the father of Iran’s nuclear success.”

The question then, of course, is how to respond to Iran’s continued defiance, whatever the motivation might be. But on this, Nichols suggested that there are no easy answers, military or otherwise.

“Authoritarian regimes are hard to pressure, because they don't have any compunction about shifting the pain of sanctions to their people,” he told me. “At this point, if the Iranians want a weapon, they're probably going to get a weapon. We can't control that. All we can do is decide how costly it is for them to keep trying.”