The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on November 8, 2011 published its latest report (35th since June 2003) on the Iranian nuclear issue. Iran’s alleged complicity in following a nuclear weapons programme in contravention of its NPT obligations was once again the focus of attention. This time around, the report contains far more information relating to activities that purportedly have military significance. These include efforts to procure dual-use equipment, work on the development of an indigenous nuclear weapon design, acquisition of nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine supply network, role of foreign suppliers and scientists, and the existence of formal organised structures to pursue such activities, among others.
A larger volume of information regarding some of these activities has been provided in the Annexures to the November 8 report by the IAEA. The report talks of “serious concerns about possible military dimensions” after reviewing over a thousand pages of documentation, information received from 10 member states as well as its own sources including open source research and information provided by Iran to its various queries. The Agency has however termed aspects of Iran’s cooperation as “imprecise and/or incorrect … sometimes contradictory.” The IAEA report also reiterates its past concerns about Iran continuing its uranium enrichment activities despite extant UN Security Council and IAEA resolutions. Iran has dismissed the IAEA’s contentions regarding the military dimensions of its nuclear programme as based on fabrications of the Western and Israeli intelligence agencies.
Prior to the publication of the IAEA report, there was reportage in international and particularly Israeli media of deliberations of war directed against Iran’s nuclear facilities. While the drum-beats of war preceding the report were justified on the ground that it would contain the ‘smoking gun’ as it were about Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, other analysts like Avner Cohen contended that the increased rhetoric and talk of war was nothing more than an effort to further isolate Iran internationally and to set the stage for more punitive UNSC sanctions.
The IAEA Board of Governors (BOG) acting on the report passed a resolution on November 18 (11th since September 2003) expressing “deep and increasing concern about unresolved issues”, and urged Iran to “engage seriously and without precondition in talks aimed at restoring international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.” Though it was passed with overwhelming support, including that of Russia and China, it has desisted from recommending the issue again to the UNSC as an international security concern. Only Cuba and Ecuador voted against the resolution while Indonesia abstained. It is pertinent to note that the UNSC has adopted six resolutions on the issue since December 2006. Four rounds of sanctions have been imposed, with the latest being that of June 2010 through UNSC Resolution 1929.
Appetite for more robust sanctions against entities like the Iranian central bank for instance was also reported to be low in the US administration. This was on account of the tenuous nature of the international economic situation and the effect such a move would have on international oil prices. The US however on November 21 announced a new set of unilateral sanctions, as did Britain and Canada, targeting Iran’s petro-chemical sector. An important part of the new measures was the US Treasury Department identifying Iran as a ‘jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern’ under Section 311 of the Patriot Act. The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the measure was the “strongest official warning we can give that any transaction with Iran poses serious risks of deception or diversion.” US officials insisted that the “statutory term of art”, being invoked on a “foreign jurisdiction as opposed to a foreign institution”, will “ensure that the designated threat does not have any direct or indirect financial access to the United States.” The previous instance of a country being categorised as such was Burma/Myanmar in 2003.
Both sides of the divide continue to claim an upper hand in the latest round of ‘diplomatic skirmish’. Iran has claimed that given that the US and other powers have failed to refer their case to the UNSC, it was “definitely a serious failure for the United States and a great victory for global peace.” The Iranian delegate termed the November 8, 2011 report as “"unprofessional, illegal and politicized." The US Ambassador to the IAEA insisted that “there is little doubt that Iran ... at the very least, wants to position itself for a nuclear weapons capability.” The German delegate, also speaking on behalf of Britain and France, affirmed that the latest IAEA report “deepened disbelief in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program.”
The report has also brought into focus the US intelligence estimates provided in the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of December 2007 (‘Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities’) which had judged with “high confidence” that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in the fall of 2003. The November 8 IAEA report notes that “there are also indications that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing.”
While the pressure on Iran’s oil sector has definitely increased as a result of the new set of unilateral sanctions by the US, Canada and Britain, the focus of attention on the intransigent issue now shifts to the March 2012 meeting of the IAEA BOG when Director General Yukiyo Amano will update the Board about “an assessment of the implementation of this resolution [November 18].” The diplomatic game of one-upmanship, along with reports of heightened war preparations (Israeli Air Force undergoing training at a NATO air base in Italy for long-range strike missions and the US supply of bunker-busting weapons) it seems will continue.