Saturday, February 23, 2008

Putting Time On The Clock

There's been a lot of speculation about just how far the latest IAEA report on the Iranian nuclear program would go towards letting Tehran off the hook. The fact that the U.S. turned over longheld intelligence to the IAEA and that France ratcheted up the rhetoric significantly is a measure of just how anxious Washington and Paris were about the possibility.

The report was just distributed to the IAEA Board of Governors yesterday and bits and pieces are starting to leak out, including portions that confirm increased Iranian cooperation with various outstanding issues, some of which the IAEA felt comfortable enough with to close. Not surprisingly Iran is claiming that everyone from Mohamed ElBaradei to Ban Ki-Moon have vindicated their claims of a peaceful program, and is repeating its demands to return the dossier from the UN Security Council's jurisdiction back to the IAEA. (Significantly, there are no direct quotes of these officials in the Iranian press.)

But this statement by Mohamed ElBaradei today is about the strongest language I've seen him use with regard to the three outstanding issues that Iran still refuses to cooperate on: explaining evidence of past weaponization programs, implementing the Additional Protocol of intrusive inspections, and suspending its uranium enrichment program as ordered by the Security Council. On the question of the Additional Protocol, ElBaradei was particularly adamant:

In addition to our work to clarify Iran's past nuclear activities, we have to make sure, naturally, that Iran's current activities are also exclusively for peace purposes and for that we have been asking Iran to conclude the so called Additional Protocol, which gives us the additional authority to visit places, additional authority to have additional documents, to be able to provide assurance, not only that Iran's declared activities are for peaceful purposes but that there are no undeclared nuclear activities. On that score, Iran in the last few months has provided us with visits to many places, that enable us to have a clearer picture of Iran's current programme. However, that is not, in my view, sufficient. We need Iran to implement the Additional Protocol. We need to have that authority as a matter of law. That, I think, is a key for us to start being able to build progress in providing assurance that Iran's past and current programmes are exclusively for peaceful purposes. (All emphasis added.)

The extent to which ElBaradei has couched his criticisms of Iranian obstruction in the past is one of the principal reasons -- along with the misreading of the NIE findings -- that Iran has managed to drag this standoff out for as long as it has. While the report has yet to be released and in all likelihood is written in the same diplo-speak as its predecessors, if it at all reflects the kind of impatience ElBaradei seemed to convey in his statement, it just might salvage the efforts to maintain international pressure on Tehran.

If so, it could possibly mark a turning point in this crisis. Iran had a real opportunity in the aftermath of the NIE report to deep six the U.S./EU negotiating stance. If they had just handed the keys of their program over to the IAEA, this case would have been closed by now. Instead they've taken piecemeal confidence-building measures that are more like two baby-steps forward (program documentation and explaining traces of highly-enriched uranium on centrifuges) followed by one giant leap back (revealing a next-gen centrifuge program), all while refusing to freeze enrichment or allow intrusive acccess to IAEA inspectors.

In many ways, the NIE left the U.S./EU playing for time. Above all, the challenge was to maintain the credibility of continued pressure long enough for the NIE report to lose some of its urgency. By highlighting Tehran's continued obstruction, this latest IAEA report just might do the trick.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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