Uncertainty made certainty in responses to the IAEA on Iran

While Iran is clearly ignoring the Security Council’s demand that it suspend uranium enrichment, and while it also fails to satisfactorily address the outstanding questions raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the true nature and objective of Iran’s nuclear activity is much less certain than some reporting and commentary suggests.

Canadian Conservative MP Chris Alexander insisted on the CBC’s As it Happens that the IAEA’s most recent report[i] is “conclusive” on the question of whether or not Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. That’s not what the report says – it in fact goes to some lengths to say that its findings are inconclusive.

Indeed, the IAEA’s most prominent refrain is that the lack of cooperation from Iran prevents it from being conclusive: “The Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.” It is of course that very uncertainty that is the source of worry – in other words, the fact that it is not able to say conclusively that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons is the problem.

And since you can’t prove a negative, it becomes a matter of positing degrees of confidence. Right now confidence levels in Iran’s claims of benign intention are low and falling, even though the IAEA cites no direct evidence of current Iranian activity on any nuclear technology designed exclusively for weapons making purposes. There is important circumstantial evidence of such activity in the past, largely unchanged from the previous reports, but some of the media reporting has few links to such basic realities. Political hype prevails:[ii] “U.N. Report Cites Secret Nuclear Research By Iran”; “Iran Conducting Secret Tests Linked to Nuclear Weapons”; “IAEA Report Says Iran Has Sought Warhead”; “U.N. Says Iran is Working on Nuclear Arms.”

Most of the evidence put forward by the IAEA focuses on earlier (2003 and before) Iranian interest and activity in weapons-related technologies, and there is concern that some of that activity could still be pursued clandestinely, but the IAEA can obviously not confirm that, and so the only conclusion the it can draw is that it cannot definitely say there is no weapons-related activity in Iran.

In the meantime very little attention has been paid to those elements of the report that are firmly conclusive – namely, that all of Iran’s known nuclear programs are under IAEA inspections and that those inspections allow the Agency “to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities and LOFs [locations outside such facilities where nuclear materials are present, all of which are in hospitals in Iran] declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement.”

That’s how safeguards are supposed to work, and those are the findings that are the objective in all countries with nuclear programs. All states are legally obligated to declare all of their nuclear facilities and the IAEA has the responsibility to give assurances that those facilities serve only peaceful purposes and that none of the materials are being diverted for non-peaceful, or weapons, purposes.

In Iran the IAEA inspectors have access to all of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities and the IAEA confirms that all are operating according to safeguard provisions.

Because of Iran’s clandestine pursuit of uranium enrichment prior to 2003, and because the IAEA has evidence that Iranians have explored technologies related to nuclear warhead design, it expresses justifiable concern that Iran could still be involved in undeclared nuclear programs and that these could be devoted to non-peaceful purposes. It is a suspicion, there is evidence that points in that direction, but there is no conclusive evidence and certainly no proof.

Suspicion and concern are by definition judgement calls and thus highly political – and given that the evidence comes primarily from US intelligence sources, given the spectacular failure of those sources in the case of Iraq, and given that in 2007 US intelligence sources said that Iran’s weapons program ended in 2003,[iii] there are strong reasons to be skeptical of the quality of the evidence now relied on, where it actually points, and the political hype that precedes and surrounds IAEA analysis.

On the question of military intervention to stop Iran’s nuclear programs, Canada’s Globe and Mail noted that, “because the most important facilities are hidden deep underground,”[iv] an effective military attack would be “hugely difficult.” It’s a sensible point, but it still begs the question of which nuclear facilities would be bombed. All
known facilities, above ground or underground, are now subject to IAEA
safeguards and regular inspections, and in all cases the IAEA confirms that basic
safeguard standards are being met and that no nuclear materials are being
diverted for weapons purposes.

Again, that doesn’t prove a negative and doesn’t prove that there aren’t clandestine nuclear sites in Iran. But how can clandestine sites be bombed if the attackers don’t know whether they actually exists or where they are? If Israel or the US were to claim they have intelligence information about such sites, then they would have an obligation to disclose that information to the IAEA, which in turn would then have to seek access to them. If Israel and/or the US had information on covert sites and but did not report it to the IAEA authorities, then they would be in violation of their obligations.

That an attack would be unmitigated folly unfortunately doesn’t mean it won’t happen, and doesn’t mean there aren’t ardent advocates for it – just watch US Republican presidential candidates debate the issue. More rational voices point out that while Iran’s uranium enrichment program (now focused on civilian uses but able to be converted to military purposes) might be set back some two or three years by an attack, the one thing such an attack would most certainly accomplish would be to remove all uncertainty among Iranians as to whether or not to pursue a nuclear weapons option. A deeply unpopular Iranian regime would in an instant win the overwhelming sympathy and support of Iranians, and a regime that is now divided on the question of pursuing a nuclear weapons capability would no longer be divided. As the former nuclear inspector David Albright[v]  put it, the likely Iranian response would be to launch a “Manhattan” project bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon just as quickly as possible.

The result would be the most devastating blow to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament yet devised. And since we’re talking about the politics of suspicion, one suspects there are plenty of influential people in Iran, Israel, and the United States for whom that is the objective.



[i] International Atomic Energy Agency, report by the Director General on “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” 8 November 2011 (GOV/2011/65). http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/2011/iran-resolution.html.

[ii] Washington Post (: “U.N. Report Cites Secret Nuclear Research By Iran” (Nov 8); USA Today: “Iran Conducting Secret Tests Linked to Nuclear Weapons” (Nov 8); Financial Times:“IAEA Report Says Iran Has Sought Warhead” (Nov 9); Wall Street Journal: “U.N. Says Iran is Working on Nuclear Arms” (Nov 9).

[iii] “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear
weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.” Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, National Intelligence Estimate, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, November 2007. http://www.dni.gov/press_releases/20071203_release.pdf.

[iv] John Ibbitson, “Canada will back West’s push on Iran,” The Globe and Mail, 20 November 2011. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/john-ibbitson/canada-will-back-wests-push-on-iran/article2242944/.

[v] Panel: Iran’s Nuclear Threat, with David Albright and Karim Sadjadpour on stopping
Iran’s nuclear program. 13 November 2011. http://abcnews.go.com/ThisWeek/video/panel-irans-nuclear-threat-david-albright-karim-sadjadpour-stop-program-us-politics-14942961?tab=9482930&section=1206874&playlist=14944828.

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