IAEA Board discusses Iran this week – where now?

The IAEA Board meets this week on November 17 and 18 to accept a report from the Secretary General on Iran and to discuss its reactions. Last week witnessed an escalation in the threat of military action against Iran from the most senior Israeli officials, just prior to the IAEA report said to have detailed irrefutable evidence of warhead research within Iran. It will be for the U.N. Security Council after this meeting to decide whether it forms the basis for any new sanctions action, something U.S. and European states seem set upon.

Following the story here in Washington you would be forgiven for thinking last week’s report had buried any lingering doubts and proved once and for all that Iran was on the road to nuclear weapons possession, even if it had a few years yet to walk it. US and European journalists seem to have fallen in line with this interpretation. But that does not appear to be the view from Moscow or Beijing, who point out that the report does not contain significant new information worthy of new sanctions, and that such a move could harm the chances of diplomatic initiatives. And while Iran’s claim that accusations within the IAEA Report are a fabrication are predictable, equally it should not be wholly discounted as a possibility; the lead up to war in Iraq should teach us that. In the end, the IAEA report, however detailed and objective the evidence it appears to lay out, largely speaks to people’s existing prejudice.

If one is interested in the underlying truth of the situation, the smart money must surely be on the probability that the more influential factions within the Iranian leadership value developing the option of weapons possession at some point in future but have not yet made any decision, and that technical studies have probably been conducted with the endorsement of only a limited number of people within the leadership.

It is interesting that those familiar with factional politics in Washington and who use the complexity of debate and domestic politics to explain the lack of more coherent political action by the U.S. government themselves fail to understand the challenges faced in the smaller yet just as complex factional power play within Tehran. It is perfectly possible that assassination plots and weaponization research can be conducted outside a coherent strategic policy.

And all this before one even gets to the question of how best to find ways out of the traps the protagonists have each dug for themselves in this stand-off. Given the extent of the detail in the appendix to the report, Iran has a case to answer, but there are clear disincentives to them clearing it all up. What comfort is there that if they were to admit to any weaponization research this would not simply take us one step closer to military intervention?

As the most powerful actor in the game, with an important interest in being seen within a currently turbulent region to act fairly, the United States would do well to look again at the face-saving incentive exit offers it is making to Iran that will be necessary if Iran is to safely admit to whatever historical and ongoing activities Iranian scientists have been involved with, and to accept the transparency measures that will be necessary to build the confidence that we all need.

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