Will Nuclear Watchdog Report Change U.S. Policy Toward Iran?

The International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran may still be working toward a bomb

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Iran's Head of Atomic Energy Organization Abbasi-Davani speaks at the 55th IAEA General Conference in Vienna / Reuters

The Obama administration insists that a major new U.N. report on Iran's nuclear program does not imply that Iran is significantly further along in its efforts to manufacture or obtain a nuclear explosive. But officials on Tuesday challenged Iran to respond to evidence that it continues to work clandestinely to build an atomic bomb.

President Obama has argued that harsh sanctions designed to isolate Iran, combined with periodic overtures to the Iranian people, and topped off by a healthy amount of covert action, would be enough to keep the Iranian nuclear program from maturing to a point where the country could pose an existential threat to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the region. The report on Tuesday from the International Atomic Energy Agency will give opponents of that policy another whack, even though it does suggest that Iran isn't any closer to actually having or using a weapon. Even allies of Obama, however, are alarmed.

"Since 2002, the agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear-related activities involving military-related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the agency has regularly received new information," the IAEA's report concludes.

Investigators for the nuclear watchdog found that Iran continues to work on heavy-water production, a key moderator in nuclear reactions, despite U.N. Security Council resolutions ordering them to halt all such work. Also, the IAEA suspects that the country is enriching uranium outside the facilities monitored by the agency. Iran has stated that it will enrich its uranium at 20 percent of capacity. Weapons grade uranium has a concentration of 90 percent.  

Iran has refused to cooperate with the IAEA for several years, and has revealed at least one major nuclear facility after a Western intelligence agency discovered its existence.

The IAEA says it  has evidence that figures associated with Iran's nuclear establishment have at numerous times sought to purchase spark gaps and high-speed switches for use in weapon-shell triggers, as well as technical material about how to turn processed nuclear material into explosives. Much of this information has been provided to IAEA by 10 countries and their intelligence agencies, who monitor Iran's inquiries and seek to avoid weapons proliferation by keeping close tabs on the black market.

And if there's a smoking gun for the IAEA, it's from intelligence that Iran used sophisticated modeling techniques to gauge the effects of a uranium bomb "subject to shock compression" -  a reference to the way that nuclear fission is triggered using high-grade explosives, tamping devices, and precise geometries around the nuclear core.

"The application of such studies to anything other than a nuclear explosive is unclear to the agency," the report concludes. "It is therefore essential that Iran engage with the agency and provide an explanation."

Iran's critics pounced on the report, portions of which have circulated in Washington for days.

"Today, the IAEA has issued the clearest possible warning about a potentially catastrophic threat since the Hart-Rudman Commission in January 2001 predicted a major terrorist attack on our homeland," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn. "The IAEA's message is similarly stark: The extremist, terrorist regime that rules Iran is actively working to possess nuclear weapons, and the time to stop them is running out."

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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