Containing the Iranian Nuclear ThreatIran reacted angrily to the report released this week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) pointing to possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. It remains unclear whether the United States and Europe will be able to use the information to increase pressure on Iran.

In a new Q&A, James Acton and Karim Sadjadpour analyze the new report and Iran’s nuclear program. While the new allegations call the peaceful intentions of Iran’s work into greater question, China and Russia are unlikely to agree to “crippling” sanctions.


What is the significance of the IAEA’s new report on Iran?

Acton: The IAEA prepares four reports a year on Iran’s nuclear program. Over the course of eight and a half years, these reports have demonstrated that Iran had failed—and is still failing—to comply with its reporting and transparency requirements.

Although the previous reports indicated that the IAEA was concerned that elements of Iran’s nuclear program were geared toward the manufacture of nuclear weapons, they did not set out the basis for these concerns in much depth.

This report fills that gap. In a detailed fifteen-page annex, it sets out why the IAEA is “increasingly concerned” that Iran’s nuclear program has a “possible military dimension.” Although the report does not draw any definitive conclusions in this regard, it represents an unprecedented show of concern by the IAEA.

How is Iran responding to the report?

Sadjadpour: Iran's reaction has been characteristically defiant. Rather than make an attempt to answer the questions that this report raises, Tehran has simply reiterated its long-held stance that the country’s nuclear program is purely peaceful and that the West exhibits double standards given its own large nuclear arsenal.

It’s more difficult, however, for Iran to denounce the IAEA given that it’s an international body under United Nations auspices whose board is predominantly non-Western.


Is there a fissure in Iran over its nuclear program?

Sadjadpour: I don’t see any signs of one. There are no moderate internationalists in positions of authority in Tehran and the lesson the hardliners seemingly took away from Libya is that Qaddafi’s abdication of his nuclear program is what made him vulnerable to foreign intervention. For this reason, I see very little likelihood that Iran will feel that it’s in its own interest to make any meaningful nuclear compromises.

At a popular level, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence about people’s deteriorating quality of life—particularly the escalating cost of basic foodstuffs—but people often (correctly) attribute that to governmental mismanagement and corruption—which they see on a daily basis—rather than sanctions.

The effect of sanctions is arguably more palpable for the Iranian upper and middle classes, given the difficulty of transferring money in and out of the country and safely traveling in and out of the country as a result of Iran Air’s increasingly pariah-like status.

In reality, there has never been an open and honest national debate about the costs and benefits of Iran’s nuclear program. The regime has long framed the argument by saying that arrogant imperialist powers want to deprive Iran of this wonderfully advanced nuclear technology that would turn it into a superpower.

Among the large segment of Iranian society that has access to outside sources of information—like satellite television and Internet—there are mixed feelings. But given the long history of foreign transgressions in Iran, the government’s conspiratorial narrative still holds a lot of currency for many Iranians.


Does the IAEA report contain any new allegations about Iran’s nuclear program?

Acton: Yes. The report presents evidence that Iran has undertaken most—if not all—of the activities needed to design, manufacture, test, and deliver a nuclear weapon. Many of these activities—including modifying a ballistic missile to accommodate a nuclear payload—have been mentioned in previous reports, although only briefly and, in some cases, tangentially.

This report sets out the nature and extent of these activities in considerable depth and provides extensive new information about Iran’s suspected nuclear activities. Moreover, there are a couple of brand-new allegations. First, the IAEA presents evidence that Iran has modeled on a computer the process of using explosives to compress and hence detonate the highly enriched uranium core of a nuclear weapon. And second, the IAEA has information that suggests Iran has conducted work on a firing system to ensure that a nuclear weapon delivered by a ballistic missile is detonated at the right height.


Where does the information in the IAEA report come from?

Acton: Controversially, a significant amount of the evidence is intelligence supplied by IAEA member states. To mitigate criticism, the IAEA says that it has received information from ten states and that this information is broadly consistent.

Moreover, the IAEA emphasizes that intelligence information was backed up by other sources, such as its own verification activities (including interviews with foreign scientists and suppliers involved in Iran’s nuclear program), information supplied by Iran, and open-source information.

Interestingly, it is clear from the report (although not stated explicitly) that Russia has helped the IAEA by confirming that a scientist who assisted Iran worked for much of his career in Russia’s nuclear weapons program.


Is there a “smoking gun” in the IAEA’s new report?

Acton: Possibly. In reference to the computer modeling, the IAEA states that the “application of such studies to anything other than a nuclear explosive is unclear to the [IAEA].” If Iran cannot provide an alternative explanation, the IAEA could, in the future, argue that these studies, by themselves, prove Iran’s nuclear program has a military dimension.

But if the IAEA decides to definitively assert the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, it is more likely to make its case on the evidence taken as a whole (in much the same way that prosecutors in a domestic court do).


Does the IAEA's report contradict the U.S. government's 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that said Iran had suspended weapons research in 2003?

Acton: Partially. The 2007 NIE stated that Iran ceased activities directly related to the design and manufacture of a nuclear weapon in 2003. The new IAEA report reaches the same conclusion. They differ on the timing of the program’s restart.

The 2007 NIE judged with “moderate confidence [that] Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007.” The new IAEA report concludes that Iran had resumed this program in 2006 or earlier.

To be fair, the 2007 NIE did conclude that Iran’s ongoing enrichment efforts were probably intended to keep open the option of developing a nuclear weapon, so its conclusion was not as far from the mark as is often implied.


Is Israel seriously considering a military strike to contain the Iranian nuclear threat?

Sadjadpour: Historically, there has been an inverse correlation between Israeli saber-rattling and Israeli military action. Israeli strikes on Iraqi nuclear facilities in 1981 and against Syria’s nuclear reaction in 2007 were preceded by radio silence. The likelihood is very slim of an attack on Iran’s facilities, but given the sure-to-be dramatic consequences we can’t afford to simply dismiss it outright.


Will the report be used to ratchet up pressure on Iran? Will the evidence alter the positions of Russia and China?

Sadjadpour: China and Russia may be more reluctant now to vouch for Iran’s peaceful intentions, but they will still continue to argue that dialogue not coercion is the only way to resolve this issue. Given their own bilateral relationships with Tehran, the reality is that until and unless Iran actually tests a bomb, China and Russia will likely see it in their interests to feign skepticism about evidence of Tehran’s nuclear weapons aspirations.

Iran can be helpful to China in meeting its enormous domestic energy demands and Beijing is opposed to forsaking what it sees as China’s own national interests in order to please Washington. Russia’s stance toward Iran is a byproduct of its rivalry with the United States, and it often feels that what’s bad for Washington is good for Moscow.

The Obama administration basically has two options on the pressure track. Either Washington can pursue “crippling” sanctions—such as sanctions against the Iranian Central Bank—with a weak coalition, or it can pursue somewhat milder measures with a much more robust international coalition that includes Russia and China. Washington has chosen the second route.