Ever since Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei stepped down as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in late 2009, the United States and some of its allies have pushed Baradei’s successor, Yukiya Amano, to ratify Western arguments that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons. Today, Amano authorized the release of an IAEA report, see here, purporting to do just that.
Predictably, the report is being treated in some quarters as an effective casus belli. As the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy commented after the document’s release, see here, the report “should serve to shift the public debate from whether Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, to how to stop it”. It is not difficult to imagine how Republican presidential candidates will strive to “out-hawk” one another—and, especially, President Obama—during their next debate this coming Saturday as to their willingness to go to war to stop the Islamic Republic from building a nuclear bomb.
But the report—arguably the most anticipated document of its kind since the NPT was first advanced in 1968—does not in any way demonstrate that Iran is “developing a nuclear weapon”. Rather, it once again affirms, as the IAEA has for decades, Iran’s “non-diversion” of nuclear material. In other words, even if the Islamic Republic wanted to build nuclear weapons (and Tehran continues to deny, at the highest levels of authority, that it wishes to do so) it does not have the weapons-grade material essential to the task.
Nevertheless, Amano chose to focus the report on unsubstantiated intelligence reports, provided almost entirely by the United States, Israel, and other Western governments, alleging that the Islamic Republic is working on a nuclear weapons program. Most of this information has been available to the IAEA for years. But Baradei refused to publicize it during his tenure as the Agency’s chief—because he could neither corroborate it nor be confident about its provenance and quality. Remember, Baradei had been right about the state of Iraq’s nuclear program in 2002, when all of the intelligence services and national governments that would later try getting him spun up about Iran had been spectacularly wrong. And he was not going to let the United States or anyone else steamroller him on Iran.
Amano, unfortunately, does not bring the same kind of intellectual and political integrity to his job as his predecessor. The United States, Israel, and other Western governments had to work hard to get the IAEA’s Board of Governors to elect Amano in 2009, by the narrowest possible margin, barely overcoming a challenge from South Africa’s distinguished ambassador to the Agency, Abdul Minty. But Washington and its allies got what they wanted. An October 2009 cable from the U.S. mission to the IAEA, published last year by Wikileaks, see here, reported that Amano had “reminded [the U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA] on several occasions that he would need to make concessions” at times to developing countries, “but that he was solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision”, including “the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.”
And so the latest IAEA report treats its readers to sensational stories of Iranian nuclear weapons designs and experiments on things that can supposedly only be applied to the fabrication of nuclear weapons. None of these stories is corroborated by hard evidence, but the Amano-led IAEA passes them on anyway, with its effective imprimatur.
There are many reasons to question virtually every detail in the IAEA’s accounting of the “possible military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear program. But, more importantly, the stories do not indicate that Tehran is currently trying to produce nuclear weapons. (And, remember, Iran does not have the weapons-grade fissile material needed to build a nuclear bomb.) In fact, no one has ever produced a shred of evidence that Iran has ever actually tried to build a nuclear weapon or taken a decision to do so. And that is why—notwithstanding the efforts of the Obama Administration, some allied governments, neoconservative and pro-Israel constituencies in Washington, and others to hype IAEA report to the maximum extent possible—the new IAEA report is, substantively, a colossal non-event.
The NPT prohibits non-nuclear-weapon state signatories from receiving “the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly”. Non-nuclear-weapon states also undertake “not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” and “not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”.
The emphasis is on “manufacture” and “acquisition”. The Treaty prohibits the building of actual weapons. It does not prohibit signatories from studying nuclear weapons designs, or researching neutron initiators, or even conducting experiments on high-explosives of the sort that could be used in a bomb.
Even if every single point in the IAEA’s report were absolutely, 100 percent true, it would mean that Iran is working systematically to master the skills it would need to fabricate nuclear weapons at some hypothetical point down the road, should it ever decide to do so. This is how we ourselves have long interpreted the strategic purposes of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program—to create perceptions on the part of potential adversaries that Tehran is capable of building nuclear weapons in a finite period of time, without actually building them. As Baradei himself has pointed out, see here, having a “nuclear weapons capability” is not the same as having nuclear weapons.
Iranian efforts to develop a “nuclear weapons capability”, as described by Baradei, may make American and Israeli elites uncomfortable. But it is not a violation of the NPT or any other legal obligation that the Islamic Republic has undertaken. While the NPT prohibits non-nuclear-weapon states from building atomic bombs, developing a nuclear weapons capability is, in Baradei’s words, “kosher” under the NPT, see here. It is certainly not a justification—strategically, legally, or morally—for armed aggression against Iran.
In the end, the United States and its allies have a choice to make. They can continue down a path that will ultimately prompt them to launch yet another illegal and ill-considered war for hegemonic domination in the Middle East. But the consequences of attacking Iran are likely to be far more damaging for America’s strategic position in the Middle East than the reverses it suffered as a result of its 2003 invasion of Iraq. (We would ask anyone who questions whether the Iraq war was profoundly counter-productive for the United States simply to compare Washington’s standing and influence in the Middle East 10 years ago to its standing and influence there today; viewed through this prism, the measure of self-inflicted damage to America’s strategic position in this critical region is truly extraordinary.)
Alternatively, the United States and its allies can accept the Islamic Republic as an enduring political order with legitimate interests and sovereign rights, and come to terms with it—much as the United States came to terms with the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s. In the nuclear arena, specifically, this means accepting, in principle and in reality, the continued development of Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium, while working with Tehran to put in place multilateral arrangements to ensure that the proliferation risks associated with uranium enrichment in Iran (as in any other country) are controlled.
Based on our conversations with senior Iranian officials, we are convinced that this is precisely the sort of conversation Tehran wants to have with Western and other international interlocutors about their nuclear program. But the United States—under the Obama Administration every bit as much as under the George W. Bush Administration—refuses to pursue this sort of dialogue.
Until that changes, the United States is headed toward another strategic disaster in the Middle East. And, by succumbing to American pressure, the IAEA has raised the odds that this is precisely what will occur.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett