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."

The administration counters that the "[t]he IAEA does not assert that Iran has resumed a full-scale nuclear weapons program nor does it [say] how advanced the programs really are," a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call. Though the press and many hawks have focused on the IAEA's conclusions that Iran continues to participate in activities that indicate interest in building a bomb, the administration chose to focus on the IAEA's conclusion that a "structured program" to develop a nuclear warhead was halted in 2003. "The organization ... that was conducting it was disbanding ... and the headquarters ... was subsequently bulldozed, so it no longer exists," the official said.

The IAEA is not known for intemperate judgments, and its words today will put immense pressure on the administration to justify its approach, or risk the threat of a unilateral attack on Iran by Israel - and potentially a response that could plunge the brittle region into war. There is little appetite in the U.N. for additional sanctions, which the U.S. might seek depending on the Iranian's government's response to the report. The administration will shift the spotlight to Iran, trying to force it to respond to the IAEA's report. A U.S. official said that sanctions imposed by the U.N. have crippled the Iranian economy and sowed division between the country's business class and ruling elite.

But the official acknowledged "serious" concerns about Iran's persistent interest in nuclear weapons.

The administration officials spoke on background because they did not want to catalyze a political debate about the report nor, by providing their names and titles, betray any significant concern about the report's conclusions.

"We will continue to consult with allies around the world on next steps," one of the officials said. One official said the U.S. is "preparing additional pressure mechanisms" for use against Iran - presumably including unilateral U.S. covert actions and increased diplomatic and financial pressure.

"A lot of conversations are taking place right now to find out what the best responses are going to be, but it clearly means we have to ratchet up on Iran, probably tougher sanctions among other things," Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., told reporters on Tuesday.

The U.S. has kept mum about reports that Israel's patience has run out and that that country is preparing for air strikes against known nuclear facilities. Shimon Perez, the president of Israel, has said that an airstrike against Iran's nuclear facilities was "very likely" in light of recent events. Israel's covert-action program against the country, which has reportedly included assassinations of scientists and a lead role in the creation of the Stuxnet computer virus which crippled, for two years, Iran's centrifuge production, has been quietly supported by the U.S.

A U.S. intelligence official said that Tuesday's IAEA report was the most comprehensive it has ever released publicly.