IAEA 'mismanagement' raises Tehran's ire
This week, the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is holding a meeting in Vienna and, as expected, non-proliferation issues pertaining to North Korea and Iran will be given top priority. This is at a time when United States officials have made optimum use of the IAEA's recent report that indirectly confirms that Iran has "sufficient fissile material to make a bomb", to quote Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In his opening address to the IAEA meeting, Mohammad ElBaradei, the agency's director general, said that Iran's nuclear activities were being monitored and there was no evidence of military diversion, adding however that "Iran has not suspended its enrichment-related activities, or its work on heavy water-related projects. Nor has Iran implemented the Additional Protocol [of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]. Iran has not permitted the agency to perform the required design information verification at the IR-40 reactor currently under construction. Such access, together with the sampling of destroyed and salvaged equipment and debris, is essential for the agency to complete its assessment."
ElBaradei has been downplaying Iran's cooperation for some time, raising the ire of Tehran and leading some commentators to attribute this to, among other things, such extraneous factors as the new low in Iran-Egypt relations. This is in light of ElBaradei's Egyptian background and growing tensions between Tehran and Cairo over the recent Gaza war and Cairo's reported readiness to embrace the exiled Iranian opposition, the Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization, which is getting kicked out of Iraq.
A Tehran University political science professor, expressing Tehran's growing dissatisfaction with respect to the IAEA's performance, asked: "Mr ElBaradei in his own reports has repeatedly confirmed that (a) 'The agency has been able to continue to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran' and (b) that 'all nuclear material in the country remain under agency containment and surveillance', so the question is why is he suddenly quiet on all that is positive in Iran's cooperation with the IAEA?"
Another analyst at the Institute for Strategic Studies, a Tehran think-tank, told the author that ElBaradei, who went on record last October as stating categorically that Iran did not have enough low-enriched uranium to develop one nuclear bomb, may have been genuinely surprised by the results of the agency's physical inventory. He added, however, "Mr ElBaradei should have known there was the possibility of some discrepancy and we are surprised by his surprise."
What is more, whereas ElBaradei and some of his colleagues gave themselves the license to speculate on the timeline when Iran could convert its peaceful nuclear work into weaponization - ElBaradei most recently put the estimate at two to five years from now - the reaction in Iran is that this is highly irresponsible and even odd since he does not make similar statements about other countries such as Japan and South Korea. These countries have similar capabilities and the IAEA should refrain from such speculations that lend themselves to serious misinformation on Iran, let alone dangerous political and even military deductions by the US and Israel.
Case in point, it is noteworthy that Mullen's statement above came in response to a rather misleading question by a CNN reporter, who conveyed the impression that the IAEA has indeed confirmed that Iran has sufficient enriched uranium to make a bomb. Subsequently, instead of amending his response in light of the intense heat that it generated, not to mention the simultaneous press interview by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who indirectly contradicted Mullen by insisting that Iran was nowhere near putting together a bomb, Mullen through his spokesman Captain John Kirby, stuck to his guns. Kirby "clarified" that his boss was simply referring to the IAEA's finding that Iran had processed 2,222 pounds (1,010 kilograms) of low-enriched uranium.
Expectedly, Iran was swift in taking issue with Mullen's remark, calling it pure propaganda, yet one can only imagine the rising temperature in Tehran over the IAEA's perceived mismanagement of the Iran nuclear file. After all, the IAEA has issued a statement of clarification that exonerates Iran of any blame for "understating" the volume of enriched uranium and even praises Iran for "good cooperation".
Yet there is no sign that anyone in the US government is aware of this very important clarification that carries potential policy ramifications. Surely this issue is important enough to warrant repetition, not only by the IAEA spokesperson but also ElBaradei himself, given the fact that the US and to a lesser extent the European media continue to behave as if no such clarification has been issued to directly contradict the alarms raised by them.
From Iran's vantage point, the most irritating aspect of the IAEA "misplaying its cards on Iran" has to do with the likely negative effect on Moscow's nuclear cooperation with Tehran. The timing of the latest IAEA report, and all the sinister media spin on it, which emerged during a visit to Tehran last week by a high-level Russian delegation, may have something to do with the latter's turnabout on their pre-visit promise that they would be disclosing a specific date for the opening of the much-delayed Russian-made power plant in Bushehr in Iran.
Concerning the latter, the visiting head of Russia's atomic agency, Sergei Kreinko, at a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart refused to give a dateline for Bushehr's opening, nor did he bother to second his host's statement that the plant would be fully operational by the end of this summer.
Angered by Russia as it continues to "play politics with Bushehr", Iran's former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani at his Friday prayer sermon strongly urged Russia to live up to its contractual commitments.
According to the Iranian press, Kreinko in his private meetings in Tehran conceded that "Russia has no more excuses for delaying the opening of Bushehr". Well, maybe no technical excuse, but plenty of political ones relating to Moscow-Washington relations that are obviously intruding here and much depends on the April summit between US President Barack Obama and Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev.
On the bargaining table is Russia's delivery of sophisticated S-300 surface-to-air missiles that could cripple an Israeli air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. A new bipartisan study by the pro-Israel Washington Institute For Near East Studies think-tank has proposed a set of policies for the Obama administration to dissuade Moscow from going ahead with this military sale and to impose tougher sanctions against Iran.
The Russian daily Kommersant reported that the Obama administration had offered to forego the controversial missile defense shield in Europe in exchange for Russia's support of Iran's nuclear program. The downside of such a bargain is that Russia will surely be coerced by the US in the future on other issues, and may now feel emboldened to squeeze Moscow further militarily to get concessions politically.
In conclusion, the likely outcome of this week's IAEA meeting will be another fresh log in Washington's furnace of sanctions on Iran, which requires consensus among Washington, Moscow, Beijing and other parties in the "Iran Six" concert - Britain, France and Germany.
Although Iranian officials have exhorted the leaders of this group to act "with realism" and prudence, given the IAEA's willingness to coordinate its moves on Iran with Obama's script for action against Iran, Tehran is unlikely to prevent a renewed multilateral effort aiming to curb its nuclear activities. The question is how far this effort will go to squeeze Iran when such pressures are likely to backfire on the US's regional policy toward Iraq, Afghanistan and the larger Middle East?
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.