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A never-ending spectacle: the IAEA report and Iran’s nuclear programme

Analysis - 10 November 2011

Rouzbeh Parsi

After several days of selective leaks, the hotly anticipated and epically hyped IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear programme was leaked in toto on the 8th of November. The actual report bears very little resemblance to the things the media and certain political quarters make it out to be. It is in fact an attempt to incorporate into the official narrative of the IAEA the material that Western governments and intelligence organisations have had for several years. Thus a certain bewilderment at the hype and unrealistic expectations of the report is natural, but it also begs the question: what were the countries that fed this information and pressured the IAEA to finally incorporate it in their official report aiming for?

This takes us beyond the actual content of the report, and puts focus on its reception and political representation, which is the really important and deeply problematic aspect of this whole phenomenon. So beyond the obvious implications of all of this for the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Iran’s compliance to it, it is about the regional dynamic involving Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the never-ending confrontation between Washington and Tehran.

The actual IAEA report

A lot of the issues and material enumerated in the report, in particular in its annex, have been known now for several years. They were presented to the Agency by its member states, but usually with the caveat that sources cannot be revealed, nor can the material be shown to the Iranians. This in turn allowed the Iranians to claim that they cannot respond to accusations based on documents not made available to them.

Through this report the IAEA is in effect stating that it can, and has, verified and corroborated a lot of the hints and claims made over the years by several of its own member states – the United States in particular. That the IAEA is vouching for these claims and accusations against Iran is in and of itself not a magical wand that solves the issue. For all of its air as a technical organisation, the IAEA is also a political body constituted by states in the international system and cannot avoid the political maelstrom that is international politics. Thus its credibility is at stake as much as anyone else’s when it comes to Iran’s nuclear programme.

This, notwithstanding the report, does raise some very pertinent questions which one can legitimately demand that Iran answers. The current trajectory and the tone with which the issue is raised and pursued leaves little hope for this being accomplished or even being the primary purpose.

Leaving aside the column-hogging headlines and exhilarating leaps of imagination that lead some to the conclusion that Iran is only 'months away from the Bomb', the operative paragraph in the report is section 45 on page 8:

"The information indicates that prior to the end of 2003 the above activities took place under a structured programme. 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."

What this paragraph states is that most of the data that the IAEA has been working on following up, can now, with a reasonable measure of confidence, claim as corroborated dates to 2003 and earlier. Thus the systematic attempt by Iran to acquire and master the technology and components required for weaponisation dates to 2003 (an assessment similar to that of the US National Intelligence Estimate from 2007) and earlier according to the IAEA. It is much less confident and more prone to use qualifiers when discussing such activities after 2003. Thus the notion that this report provides irrefutable evidence that Iran has a full-blown weaponisation programme with an actual weapon ‘soon’ is pure fantasy. The IAEA simply did not have the data to claim such a thing (which of course is not the same as claiming that there is no weaponisation programme).

So it seems in this regard the report was yet another element in the ever-ongoing attempt to ratchet up the pressure on Iran and pave the way for new punitive sanctions – difficult as it is to see what effect they could have, who could agree to them and who could afford to implement them.

The regional dynamics : Israel vs. Iran

One of the reasons the temperature has been rising on the issue of Iran is the noise coming out of Israel. Israel's obsession with Iran is a matter of its re-appraisal in the aftermath of the 1991 Iraq war, identifying the new ‘greatest regional threat’. This is of course not just a straightforward exercise in geostrategic thinking, it is also about finding a new arch-enemy that can serve as foil for a generic sense of imperilment and strengthening one’s self-perception by finding one’s (purported) antithesis. No one personifies this with regard to depicting Iran as an existential threat as much as Israel’s current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.

There are several reasons why this approach of playing along with Iran in an echo chamber of mutual threats and vilification is both erroneous and untenable.

First, by now it should be clear that all the alarmism that has been channeled and expressed through timelines and clocks have been absurdly wide of the mark. Israeli politicians have been predicting a menacing Iranian bomb since 1992 – with doom never further than to 2-5 years away. In this regard, the present circus is really treating us to golden-oldies as the media frenzy immediately picks up on the combination of Israeli warnings about the danger of 'being forced to act with military means' in order to stop the imminent threat, and the danger of the imminently appearing Iranian bomb.

Leaving aside the regular and constantly faulty predictions of Israeli politicians with regard to the Iranian bomb, the principal issue is what this yet-to-be-seen Iranian bomb will accomplish and what it will mean for Israel, the region and the world at large.

For in the end, Israel’s fear is not really about an actual Iranian attack constituting an existential threat to the country (several high ranking officials including none other than Ehud Barak have stated this in the past) but rather that the notion of an Iranian bomb will diminish the power of Israel's own nuclear arsenal, i.e. losing its de facto monopoly on nuclear arms in the region.

One of the underlying presuppositions of these doomsday scenarios is that Iran is run by fanatical irrational mullahs hell-bent on murder and mayhem. That the Islamic republic has been involved in acts of murder and violence abroad – and even more frequently at home – is a matter of historical record. But the logic for this behaviour has mostly emanated from the paramount priority of the elite of the Islamic republic: its own survival. In short, one can say many things about the rulers of Tehran (quite a lot of it with good reason and most likely true) but suicidal they are not. They know very well that the only game in which they can hope for parity with Israel is one of asymmetric warfare. In symmetrical conventional war or any kind of exchange involving nuclear weapons, Iran would not stand a chance. Israel has a documented second strike capability and an arsenal that dwarfs anything Israeli politicians can scare themselves into believing that Iran could produce.

The added irony that is often lost in the din of media spin is of course that Iran in this regard is following the Israeli doctrine of nuclear ambiguity. Israel refuses to confirm or deny its nuclear arsenal, concocting a fictitious web of ambivalence that allows its Western allies to continue ignoring this particular elephant – one of many in the region by the way – in the room. Iran is, most likely, looking for a similar ambiguity: a break out capability that they calculate will allow them to hover on the legalistic threshold between being inside and outside the NPT – something Israel does not need to as it is not a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

It is doubtful that this calculation is correct with regard to the NPT. The other question is whether it would engender a nuclear arms race in the region, i.e. whether Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for instance, would pursue the bomb. This could very well be, but they are signatories of the NPT and close allies of the United States and would most likely see it as more cost-effective way to enjoy a US nuclear umbrella.

In the end, as the Arab Spring has proven in neighbouring countries, the nearest thing to an existential threat for states and countries in the region emanate from within. Israel’s real problems are the occupation of Palestinian land and the growing rift between the religious and secular among its Jewish population. The real threat to the Islamic Republic is not an Israeli attack, supposed (and extremely ridiculous notions of) Western conspiracies and velvet revolutions, but the repression of dissent in Iranian society, the alienation of the population at large from their rulers, and the mismanagement of the economy.

Learning to live with the bomb

The call for new sanctions is as predictable as the cry for military strikes from the American neo-conservative camp. It is however unclear what kind of sanctions can be put in place since there isn't really that much more left to sanction as far as Iran is concerned. Actions such as shutting out Iran’s central bank or oil industry from the global market would escalate the confrontation very close to war-like conditions. They are for this reason very risky as a unilateral action and highly unlikely on a global scale because of Russian and Chinese resistance in the Security Council.

So in this game of diminishing returns of the sanctions track it is difficult to see what can be implemented that is of any actual importance, let alone proportionate to the claimed catastrophe 'discovered' by the IAEA.

A more benign reading of commotion (in that it gives them the benefit of the doubt with regard to the realism in their assessment) would be that it is a classic attempt to size-up and jolt the other side before starting negotiations. The problem with this interpretation, or rather the calculation it believes the action rests on, is that there really is barely any diplomatic relationship between the parties to talk about, and even less confidence and trust. So it is doubtful that this has been a helpful exercise even if it turns out to be, thankfully, just the opening salvo of a new round of negotiations rather than war.

What all this amounts to is to show yet again how easily things can spin out of control and how precious little is being done in terms of substantive negotiations and diplomacy. What every one has got used to and good at is to draw lines, bright red ones, making claims of what they could never ever give, while reality continues apace, and Iran enriches uranium (though obviously not as easily or steadily as they brag about and everyone else fears). This policy of default positions and predictable inertia instead of engaging in confidence-building measures and establishing lines of communication only exacerbates the problems which everyone knows they eventually have to deal with.

If the issue of substantial negotiations is what no one really wants to deal with or risk political capital over, the really big elephant in the room is that at some point a break-out-ready Iran, i.e. capable of building a bomb without necessarily doing so, is going to be become a reality. It will entail some political readjustments but we will end up learning to live with this as we have with much else.