Center for Arms Control

by Laicie Olson [contact information]

New Details on Iran Don’t Change the Game

A new report on Iran’s nuclear capability from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) does not contain any startling new developments, but already it has some conservatives in the U.S. and Israel beating the drums for war.

While the report contains a level of detail not seen before, it does not contain a “smoking gun.” Details of Iran’s likely weaponization activities prior to 2003 are laid out clearly and include:

• Efforts, some successful, to procure nuclear related and dual use equipment and materials by military related individuals and entities (Annex, Sections C.1 and C.2);
• Efforts to develop undeclared pathways for the production of nuclear material (Annex, Section C.3);
• The acquisition of nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine nuclear supply network (Annex, Section C.4); and
• Work on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components (Annex, Sections C.5–C.12).

It is clear from the IAEA’s report that these activities took place under a highly structured nuclear program. Iran’s major nuclear effort, identified as the AMAD plan, was stopped “rather abruptly” by Tehran in late 2003, but some staff may have “remained in place to record and document the achievements of their respective projects.”

Unfortunately, more recent activities receive a far lower level of clarity from the IAEA. According to the report, there are, “indications that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing,” but “the Agency’s ability to construct an equally good understanding of activities in Iran after the end of 2003 is reduced, due to the more limited information available to the Agency.”

While the Agency continues to express concern with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, the level of activity associated with that program post-2003 remains unclear. While Iran’s nuclear program continues to make progress, an Iranian nuclear weapon is not imminent and the U.S. intelligence community continues to believe that Iran has yet to make the political decision to build and test a nuclear weapon.

Nonetheless, the Washington Post reports that Iran has “mastered the critical steps needed to build a nuclear weapon, receiving assistance from foreign scientists to overcome key technical hurdles.” And last week Israeli newspapers reported high-level Israeli government support for a military attack on Iran’s nuclear installations.

In response, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin provided a roundup of conservative talking points.

Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracy tells Rubin that, “After years of sanctions and diplomacy, and an IAEA report that suggests that Iran is now on the brink of nuclear capability, no one can reasonably argue that countries threatened by Iran have not tried all peaceful alternatives.”

Gary Schmitt at the American Enterprise Institute says, “The problem the West and Israel now face is that, while an attack might stop Tehran for awhile in building a bomb, the Iranian program has been matured to the point that is seems likely that the Iranians have all the technical know-how needed for rebuilding any part of the weapons program that might be destroyed in an attack. That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t attack but it does mean that, absent regime change, you will likely be facing a similar problem down the road.”

Rubin would like us to believe we are on the verge of a “national security calamity.”

But are we? I don’t think so. Here’s why.

1) The report doesn’t contain much that we don’t already know.

The IAEA report is based largely on intelligence the United States and other IAEA member states have shared with the agency and the agency’s own investigations to corroborate this evidence. While it does provide a level of detail not seen before, it does not contain any major groundbreaking revelations that we didn’t already know or suspect.

Folks like Schmitt and Rubin would have you believe the IAEA’s report will show evidence of a major intelligence failure. In fact, the Obama administration, which pressured the IAEA to publish more information about the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, will likely use the report’s release to garner international support for tougher sanctions.

2) Military action is just too risky, and has little possibility for payoff.

Even conservatives agree on this point. Look at Schmitt’s quote above. You can’t destroy knowledge.

Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior U.S. intelligence officer, says that “the U.S. government should be prepared for a long and difficult conflict if it ultimately decides it must attack Iran.” Although there might be some small hope of a short conflict with few complications, White points out that we might not like what such an ending would mean:

One “rational” ending for the Iranians would be to accept their losses, declare “victory” because the regime survived, lick their wounds, prepare for indirect retaliation, and resume nuclear activities on a clandestine basis.

Of course, that is assuming things don’t get messy:

But a war might not end cleanly, and the U.S. administration could find itself in a messy and protracted conflict. This suggests the need for both an expansive approach to net assessment and deep and broad preparation not just of the military but also of the “home front” and the economy, for Iran may choose to fight on these fronts as well as within its own borders and in the region.

Are we really prepared for another messy and protracted war in the Middle East? Iran’s nuclear installations are not easily targeted, and its nuclear knowledge is not easily erased.

Lieutenant Colonel Leif Eckholm, who works in the Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff explains:

The regime has devoted considerable effort to hide, diversify, and protect its nuclear assets, and the regime's determination to acquire nuclear weapons actually may well increase after such a strike...Proponents of a more comprehensive military intervention will argue that a full-scale invasion is the only means by which to crush the regime and its military apparatus, guarantee total elimination of the Iranian nuclear enterprise, and create a window for democratic change. But the price of invasion would be astronomical, and the nationalistic reaction would be fierce; thus, the projected cost in life and treasure must be weighed against the envisioned, yet unpredictable, advantages of a new regime in Tehran.

3) All peaceful alternatives have not been exhausted.

The United States and Iran demonstrated their ability to work together through diplomacy, despite differing interests, in late 2001 in constructing a new political order in Afghanistan. Prior to the US declaring an, “Axis of Evil,” with the insulting inclusion of Iran, Iranian leaders indicated their willingness to pursue further cooperation.

One or two meetings might seem like they can change the world within your office space (or maybe not, I’m not sure they could in mine?) but in the world of diplomacy, large areas of possible agreement remain unexplored.

It is not true that, “all peaceful alternatives” have been exhausted. More active U.S.-Iranian diplomacy, involving a range of issues about which the two countries differ, would expand the negotiating space, facilitate the reaching of agreements on nuclear matters consistent with U.S. interests, and permit communication to prevent crises from spiraling out of control.

Diplomacy, like all peaceful options (and actually, all non-peaceful options as well… how long have we been in Afghanistan?) takes time.

4) We have more time.

The US intelligence community continues to conclude that Iran has not yet decided whether to build the bomb.

The U.S. should be actively engaged in a discussion about how to change Iran’s nuclear calculus, and must continue to reiterate its commitment to further diplomatic engagement with Iran. The U.S. and international community cannot depend solely on targeted sanctions if there is to be any hope of a negotiated outcome. If there is a deal to be made, we should at least know what it is.

As former U.S. Intelligence Officer Paul Pillar told Ali Gharib at Think Progress:

Major Iranian decisions still have to be made before Iran produces any nuclear weapon. Such decisions will depend heavily on U.S. and western policies toward Iran — especially how much those policies constitute a threat that Iran must deter, and conversely how much it appears that an improved relationship with the West is possible.

We have a choice to make in how we react to this more detailed information from the IAEA, and how we react will inevitably influence our future.

This new report should not be used as a launch pad for war, but it should be used as a launch pad for action.

Laicie Olson 202-546-0795 ext. 2105 lolson@armscontrolcenter.org

Laicie Olson is Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where her work focuses on weapons proliferation, military spending and global security issues.

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