Iran’s nuclear program will come roaring back to the center of international attention next week when the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency unveils a new report that is expected to offer evidence of Tehran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon.
The Iranian nuclear crisis has largely retreated from headlines since the collapse in October 2009 of an international deal for removing from Iran part of the country’s growing stockpile of enriched uranium. But the report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna next week is likely to shift the spotlight back to Tehran.
Expect renewed talk of stronger international sanctions and revived speculation about the likelihood of an Israeli or US-led campaign of targeted strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, some international nuclear experts say.
“The IAEA seems to have more information to come forward with on Iran, and the tone [of the agency’s assessment] is harsher and harsher,” says one senior Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss an as-yet-unpublished report. If the evidence is solid of efforts to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon, the diplomat adds, “We will have to be very firm against Iran.”
The agency’s report, to be published in the name of IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, is billed as an “assessment” of Iranian programs, experiments, and prototypes that in sum point to no other potential application than the construction and delivery of a nuclear weapon.
The report, to be distributed to agency member countries ahead of an IAEA Board of Governors meeting Nov. 17-18, will offer details of Iranian research in neutron physics and experiments using “uranium deuteride,” some nuclear experts say – two activities that are precursors to bomb development and that have no application for civilian power or medical use.
Western powers have insisted for years that Iran’s nuclear program is a cover for a bomb-building project. Iranian authorities vehemently deny that, insisting their program is designed solely for peaceful civilian applications.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told CNN last month that the era of weapons of mass destruction is over and that any country still seeking nuclear weapons must be “politically … retarded.”
One key factor to watch for, some nuclear experts say, will be how recently any Iranian experimentation took place. Data may show that research and prototype development took place at some point in the past, they say, but may not offer proof that such work continues.
That issue has the potential to renew a dispute among Western intelligence agencies over whether Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon. In the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, the US concluded that Iran had halted a nuclear weapons design program in 2003. But European intelligence agencies, including in the United Kingdom, saw things differently, finding that Iran shifted its weapons experimentation to a clandestine program toward the end of 2004.
Despite such conflicting assessments, Western powers appear united in their tough stance toward Iran in the run-up to the report’s publication. The US and Europe have strengthened their separate economic sanctions on Iran over the past year, and the US Congress is considering legislation that would target Iran’s central bank.
Speaking Thursday after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Cannes, France, President Obama said the international community was united in its insistence that Iran offer guarantees that it is meeting its nonproliferation commitments.
“The IAEA is scheduled to release a report on Iran’s nuclear program next week,” Mr. Obama said, “and President Sarkozy and I agree on the need to maintain the unprecedented pressure on Iran to meet its obligations.”