Game Changer: The IAEA’s Report On Iran’s Nuclear Activity – Analysis


By Davis Lewin

Over the last decade, curtailing the nuclear ambitions of the Iranian regime has consistently featured as a top priority for Western foreign policymakers. Though they have asserted unequivocally Iran’s right to develop peaceful nuclear energy within a framework of adequate verification and safeguards, the consensus among Western and Middle Eastern diplomats behind the scenes has for some time been that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability, even if sections of the media and public opinion have at times ascribed ulterior motives to those raising the alarm about such a prospect. Drawn out diplomacy, high-profile overtures and clandestine operations have all been a part of this effort to halt Iran’s nuclear programme.

As such, the imminent publication of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) latest report on Iranian nuclear activity marks a crucial milestone for international diplomacy, expected as it is to present the most explicit and detailed charges yet about Iran’s intent to obtain a nuclear weapons capability from a body seen as credible and non-political. The IAEA report finds “credible” evidence that “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device” and that its pursuit of such a device may be ongoing. Drawing on information provided by IAEA member states and also its own forensic investigation, the agency finds that Iran has procured “nuclear related and dual use equipment and materials by military related individuals and entities”; developed “undeclared pathways for the production of nuclear material”; acquired “nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine nuclear supply network”; worked “on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components.” Furthermore, the report states that “[w]hile some of the activities identified… have civilian as well as military applications, others are specific to nuclear weapons.”

This represents a watershed moment with far reaching consequences. Already the spectre of military action– whether by Israel or the United States, with assistance from Great Britain — has returned to the fore of the policy debate, with a report in the Hebrew press that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak have convinced the bulk of the current Israeli cabinet to launch a preemptive strike on Iran. According to The Guardian, Britain may also be mulling a secondary military role to a possible US action to neutralise Iran’s nuclear programme.

Whatever the case, it is more likely that the immediate effect of the IAEA report is to build increased momentum towards a new and tougher round of economic sanctions,which has previously been the result of the agency’ referral of Iran to the UN Security Council for its violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Questionable Components

Though the report to be presented by the IAEA this week will lay out specific concerns in more detail, the Iranian nuclear programme has long contained a number of deeply suspect dynamics. For one, uranium enriched to 20 percent, which has been Iran’s aim, has no application in the civilian nuclear power station Iran claims to seek.

While uranium can be used as fuel for research reactors, the enrichment plans Iran announced this year would amount to over four times its annual fuel requirements. Moreover, this would include diverting half the Iranian uranium away from the civilian nuclear power stations which Iran claims are the main aim of the its nuclear activity.

Once uranium has reached the 20 percent enrichment level, it takes weeks, two or three months at most, to further enrich it to weapons grade. Diplomats have long drawn their conclusions from these realities, but the IAEA report will likely allow them to be considered more openly as part of the diplomacy on Iran at the UN.

A Long and Fruitless Diplomatic Road

Though there were concerns about an Iranian nuclear programme going back to the late 1950’s, Iran has been a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) since 1970. The current crisis has its roots in the revelation in 2002 by an exiled Iranian opposition group of a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy water plant at Arak, leading the United States to accuse Iran of the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Early the next year, the IAEA inspected both plants for the first time, reporting that Iran had failed to comply with its obligations under the NPT. Later the same year, traces of highly enriched weapons grade uranium were discovered, with the head of the IAEA accusing Iran of concealing the full extent of its nuclear programme.

A decade of crisis diplomacy ensued. Though in 2003 Iran signed the additional protocols allowing for greater IAEA supervision of its nuclear activities, and claimed to halt all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities at its Natanz plant, the pattern of violation continued. The IAEA consistently challenged Iran over its uranium enrichment, with Iran offering no proof for its intermittent assertions that is had halted such activities. By 2006 the IAEA had voted to refer Iran to the UN Security Council on account of what it called “overdue cooperation” to “clarify possible activities which could have a military dimension”.

The ensuing intricate game of high stakes diplomacy at the UN is a story of offers spurned and deadlines missed. Referral to the UN Security Council (UNSC) led Iran to announce it was ending snap IAEA inspections of its nuclear sites. Tehran also ended the brief suspension it had agreed on the feeding of uranium gas into centrifuges (a step in the enrichment process) and subsequently announced that it had produced low-grade enriched uranium, a move confirmed by the IAEA. Shortly afterwards, the European Union’s former foreign policy chief Javier Solana delivered the first of several packages of incentives to Tehran with the backing of major powers in an attempt to induce Iran to halt uranium enrichment and negotiate the proper supervision of its nuclear programme. On 31 August, the IAEA announced that Iran had missed the deadline to suspend its atomic fuel programme and by December 2006, in the face of Tehran’s continued non-compliance, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions and a 60 day deadline for Iran to suspend enrichment.

The following year saw the crisis diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear ambitions intensify significantly. Beginning with a renewed round of UNSC sanctions, by April the IAEA said Iran had begun making nuclear fuel in an underground uranium enrichment plant. The agency subsequently circulated a confidential report asserting Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium. By August, Iran had agreed with the IAEA to a timetable for answering the outstanding questions about its nuclear programme, but to little actual effect. The IAEA would eventually say that Iran has made attempts at more transparency but the organisation remained unable to ascertain if there was a secret parallel enrichment programme. In the wake of more fruitless negotiations with Iran’s top nuclear envoy, the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China (the E3+3 or P5+1) push for a third round of tougher sanctions but a meeting of world powers in Paris failed to agree to them, in part because of Iran’s successful dragging out of the process of meeting its agreement with the IAEA.

Two days after the Paris meeting, the United States National Intelligence Council published a now famous intelligence estimate which said that Iran halted its attempts to build a nuclear bomb in 2003. Though asserting many unanswered questions about Tehran’s nuclear activity, the preamble to the document made a significant impact on the dynamics of the crisis, given the headline claim.

Much has been written about the politicised nature of the preamble, with accusations that it was designed to tamper the Bush administration’s determination to confront Iran’s nuclear programme by all means necessary, but politicised or not, most US allies, including Britain and other European powers, were privately alarmed at the message the 2007 NIE sent, since their assessment, and that of Israel as well as the exiled Iranian opposition group that had initially revealed the programme, suggested Iran was still working on nuclear technology that had no civilian application. Several analysts suggested Iran may have decided to curtail its activity on account of the significant display of force by the US in Iraq in 2003, but had quickly resumed pushing ahead with its programme once it deemed the regional situation to be sufficiently manageable.

2008 saw a near repeat of the same patterns, opening with a third round of UN Security Council sanctions. In May, the IAEA registered serious concern over Iran’s research into nuclear warheads and sought more information on Tehran’s missile-related activities. Iran reacted to the report by threatening to limit cooperation with the IAEA even further. Another offer by Javier Solana on behalf of world powers is rejected by Iran, which outright refuses to suspend enrichment activities at a subsequent meeting in Geneva and conducts a missile test in the Gulf. The year ends with another deadline to respond to a renewed E3+3 offer lapsed and the IAEA complaining that Iran is blocking a UN inquiry into whether it has researched ways to develop nuclear weapons.

At the start of 2009, an IAEA report showed that Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium had significantly increased, to the extent that it was deemed sufficient for conversion into highly enriched uranium which could yield an atomic bomb. Despite the election
of a significantly more conciliatory US government, President Ahmadinejad, fraudulently reinstalled in the face of mass protests, asserts repeatedly that Iran will not give up enrichment. In September, the IAEA reveals that Iran has been developing a secret uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom for several years. Though Iran tried to claim that it had disclosed this to the IAEA, US President Obama states that it had in fact been US, UK and French intelligence that had provided the evidence and forced Iran’s hand. Under pressure, the Iranian regime agrees to allow the IAEA to inspect the plant, which passes a resolution criticising Tehran for failing to comply with UNSC ban on uranium enrichment and secretly building the second facility. Iran rejects an offer by the IAEA to broker a fuel-swap deal that would see her export her stockpiles of low enriched uranium to Russia. The year ends with the US, Britain and France warning Iran of the risk of more sanctions on account of its failure to comply with UN Security Council resolutions regarding its nuclear programme.

The end of the 2009 saw the expiry of President Obama’s offer of diplomatic and economic concessions, with Iran failing to respond. The US and her allies worked throughout 2010 on a new round of sanctions, whilst Iran’s President remained defiant, announcing publicly that Iran was enriching uranium and claiming a technological breakthrough with a new class of centrifuges. US President Obama convenes an unprecedented summit to highlight the threat of nuclear terrorism in April, building further momentum for sanctions.

In May, Turkey and Brazil sign a nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran, but a report by the IAEA later the same month made clear that Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium is now so large that even if the 1.2 tonnes it had agreed to ship to Turkey were deducted, the country would still have sufficient material for a weapon if enriched to higher levels. In June, the UN voted to extend the sanctions against Iran, which are followed up by even tougher US sanctions passed in July. Iran continued to defy the UN Security Council, leading to a growing consensus that further action would be needed.

Given the pattern of Iran’s behaviour, the crisis diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been equally unsuccessful in the face of Iran’s intransigence this year. The new head of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, made a statement in June noting new evidence
had come to light that suggested the possible weaponisation of Iran’s nuclear programme, and Western governments expressed significant alarm at Iran’s announcement the same month that it would triple capacity for uranium enrichment and shift its operation to the underground plant near Qom discovered the previous year. All eyes are now on this week’s report by the IAEA, which is expected to contain the strongest evidence yet that aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme are geared toward weaponisation.

It will be a decisive point in the conflict, with Western reaction potentially bringing about a paradigm shift in light of the long and fruitless road pursued so far.

Clandestine Warfare

Accompanying the diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon has been a clandestine struggle by Western powers to stop Tehran’s activities and by Iran to circumvent the sanctions imposed on her.

As Western efforts to tackle illicit Iranian nuclear activities have increased, the financial system in particular has brought examples of Iranian attempts to circumvent sanctions, with several large Western banks, including Lloyds, Barclays and Credit Suisse fined for facilitating financial flows illegal under the sanctions. Iran has attempted to purchase foreign banks and money-exchange bureaus, using the latter to circumvent sanctions by obscuring the origin of money used to purchase components abroad.

In July 2010, The New York Times published a lengthy investigation detailing the sophisticated strategies of flagging and re-flagging as well as obscure ownership structures that Iran uses to enable its shipping to stay ahead of the sanctions. Earlier this year, the Financial Times reported that China had fallen so far behind on its payments for Iran’s oil that it had accumulated up to $30bn in debt, which it was unable to pay due to the US sanctions on Iran preventing such payments in dollars. The two countries were reportedly considering a barter system to offset the debt. Iran even went as far as setting up its own oil bourse to trade in Iranian rials and euros, though this attempt at bypassing the sanctions appears to have fallen flat. Still, Tehran has been adept at ensuring its financial and procurement flows in the face of Western sanctions, which have so far appeared to have done no more than somewhat slowed its nuclear progress.

Conversely however, a number of scientists connected to the Iranian nuclear programme have met violent deaths. For example, in 2007, physicist Ardashir Hosseinpour was killed by radioactive poisoning, whilst in November 2010 a simultaneous attack on two nuclear scientists killed one and injured another. Iran has ascribed these attacks to the Mossad and the CIA something that is impossible to verify, though much has been written about the clandestine war between Iran and the West.

One of the most famous examples of an unattributed attack on Iran’s nuclear programme came in the form of the Stuxnet computer virus discovered in July 2010, a cyber-attack of extreme sophistication that targeted industrial control equipment in a way that made many computer security researchers conclude that it was very likely designed to attack Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant. The attack’s extreme sophistication, it was conceived with the resources of a state, and later media coverage suggested that it was a joint effort between Israel and America, though no one has claimed credit for the creation of the virus.

Whether attributable or not, it is abundantly clear that the diplomacy which has so far not borne fruit is accompanied by a second, clandestine track of intelligence led activity aimed at slowing down progress by Iran as it pursues its nuclear ambitions.


Iran and the West have been negotiating over Iran’s nuclear programme for nearly a decade. While Iran maintains that its nuclear programme is a peaceful civilian one, overwhelming evidence abounds that this is not the case. This suspicion has led to six UN Security Council resolutions requiring Iran to suspend uranium enrichment immediately, all of which it has ignored. Moreover, neither the rationale for the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent in such quantities, nor indeed the significant efforts to conceal the enrichment work, inspire confidence. In short, a country does not need even a third of Iran’s intended output of enriched uranium for research purposes nor does a country build enrichment plants into the side nuclear plant. The attack’s extreme sophistication, it was conceived with the resources of a state, and later media coverage suggested that it was a joint effort between Israel and America, though no one has claimed credit for the creation of the virus.

Whether attributable or not, it is abundantly clear that the diplomacy which has so far not borne fruit is accompanied by a second, clandestine track of intelligence led activity aimed at slowing down progress by Iran as it pursues its nuclear ambitions.
of mountains in secret when its aim is verifiably civilian nuclear energy.

With the release of the IAEA report today, we can expect a paradigm shift in international diplomacy whereby Iran’s disingenuous and time-buying tactics are seen for what they are. If not quite a “smoking gun,” the agency report ought to convince even skeptics of the mullahs’ true intentions.

Davis Lewin
is the Political Director of the Henry Jackson Society

This article was published as A Henry Jackson Society Strategic Briefing, titled Game Changer: The IAEA’s Report on Iran’s Nuclear Activity, which may be accessed here (PDF):

The Henry Jackson Society

The Henry Jackson Society: Project for Democratic Geopolitics is a cross-partisan, British-based think-tank. Its founders and supporters are united by a common interest in fostering a strong British and European commitment towards freedom, liberty, constitutional democracy, human rights, governmental and institutional reform and a robust foreign, security and defence policy and transatlantic alliance.

2 thoughts on “Game Changer: The IAEA’s Report On Iran’s Nuclear Activity – Analysis

  • November 9, 2011 at 4:20 am

    I wonder what Turkey’s position is re: a nuclear-armed Iran with proxies in Iraq and Syria?

  • November 9, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    The bias in this article is vivdly illustrated by the failure to aknowledge that 20% enriched is MEDICAL grade.

    You ought to mention also that for years Western powers stymied Irans efforts to PURCHASE ABROAD medical grade fuel.

    And last but not least, Iran is neigbour to Pakistan which is an unstable nuclear power whom nobody seems to have the guts to restrain?

    Incidently since when have international sanctions worked to produce anything besides an internal capcity to develop a counter supply or a counter threat? Cuba? Rhoedesia? North Korea? “Sanctions” if at all effective have been most often followed by a newly homegrown ability to self provide the sanctioned materials?


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