The IAEA Report: Does Iran have a Nuclear Weapons Program?

November 17, 2003

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


American Enterprise Institute

On November 17, a panel of experts gathered at AEI to preview the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors' report on Iran's nuclear program, subsequently released in Vienna on November 20. Although IAEA inspectors have found traces of enriched uranium at two of Iran's nuclear sites and cataloged a consistent pattern of deceit about its nuclear activities, it remains unclear whether the Board of Governors will judge Iran in non-compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and refer the case to the UN Security Council. How close is Iran to having a nuclear weapon? How should the Bush administration respond? Is the IAEA capable of fulfilling its mission as the guarantor of nuclear nonproliferation, or will Iran's weapons program expose it as yet another toothless international organization? Patrick Clawson Washington Institute for Near East Policy

In addressing the Iranian nuclear problem, the Bush administration is caught between two policy considerations that pull in different directions. First, the administration recognizes the danger inherent in permitting Iran to develop the capacity to produce nuclear weapons, especially given Iran's willingness to perpetrate acts of mass-casualty terrorism. The attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut prompted the United States to withdraw from Lebanon and allowed Iran to extend its influence through Hezbollah. The attack on the Khobar Towers likewise demonstrated to the Saudis the seriousness of the threat from Tehran. A nuclear weapons capability in Iran might provoke an arms race in the Middle East. There have been reports, for instance, that Saudi Arabia may acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan if Iran goes nuclear. The second of the administration's policy considerations is Iraq. As the principal focus of U.S. foreign policy, Iraq is distracting the United States from other issues. Moreover, Iraq has become a source of significant tension between the United States and its European allies. Both factors make it difficult for the Bush administration to push the Iran issue to the forefront.

Given these considerations, U.S. policy is likely to pursue several objectives. First, the Bush administration will seek to slow Iran's nuclear progress-at least until the situation in Iraq has stabilized and until after the American presidential election next year. Iran's internal politics are in flux, and the situation there could improve in the near term. Second, the United States will continue to seek to build a broad international consensus against Iranian nuclear aspirations. The administration would be delighted to see Europe take a leading role in opposing Iran's nuclear program.

The Bush administration will also threaten "serious consequences" if Iran doesn't increase the transparency of its nuclear program and comply with all disclosure obligations. "Serious consequences" could take many forms besides the outright bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities. For instance, the United States could sign missile defense accords with other Gulf states. The Bush administration is also likely to continue to demand that Iran explain the traces of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) recently found by IAEA inspectors at various sites in Iran.

The Bush administration will also try to pressure Russia on the nuclear reactor it is building for the Iranians at Bushehr. This power plant there is a source of grave concern. At the IAEA, the United States will push for a referral to the Security Council, although this is unlikely to happen. Lastly, the United States will also step up its support for democratic reforms in Iran-for example, expanding television broadcasts.

Geoffrey Kemp Nixon Center

The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran has provoked concern in Europe as well as in the United States. At this point, there are three possible resolutions for this issue.

The first possibility is that, as a result of international pressure, Iran agrees to comply fully with its obligations under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) and the additional safeguards developed by the IAEA-and then demands all the perks entitled to a NPT signatory, including international technical assistance in developing its nuclear infrastructure. The second possibility is that Iran goes further, and not only complies with its obligations under the NPT, but also abandons its efforts to develop a full nuclear fuel cycle. The third possibility is that Iran goes further still and abandons all nuclear activities, including the reactors being built at Bushehr and other sites.

The first possibility is highly unacceptable because it allows Iran to develop the full nuclear fuel cycle and with it, an extensive capability to manufacture nuclear weapons quickly. The third possibility, while desirable, is highly unlikely, being contingent on a radical strategic shift inside Iran or a military intervention from without.

Of these possibilities, therefore, the second is best. If the Iranians abandon the full fuel cycle and rely solely on Russian nuclear fuel to feed their reactor at Bushehr, it will be much more difficult for them to develop weapons. But will Iran be willing to give up its fuel cycle development?

The Iranians' determination not to become an international pariah may provide the leverage necessary to compel this result. The international consensus against Iran's nuclear activities has already shocked the Iranians into an unprecedented, open debate in Iran about whether the country should acquire nuclear weapons at all.

Reuel Marc Gerecht AEI

The assertion that there is an open debate in Iran on the issue of nuclear weapons is highly dubious. In Iranian politics, there are basically two camps: "right" and "left." They agree on very few things, but they do agree that Iran should have nuclear weapons. The question is, can they get away with it? Their current hope is that, by bluffing the IAEA, they will.

Europe wants to preempt American preemption. They say they are committed to halting Iran's program, but does this mean that they will enforce anything? No. The Europeans will talk endlessly and explain to Iran why it is not in Iranian interests to develop nuclear weapons. But the Iranians are adults and they know the risks. They are well versed in the art of realpolitik. The only way to stop Iran is by military or economic enforcement measures.

In the meantime, the United States should pursue a verification regime that would put real pressure on the Iranians. IAEA should have inspectors all over the country, gaining access to any relevant site.

Henry Sokolski Nonproliferation Policy Education Center

Our European partners do not share America's point of view when it comes to Iran. Iran also has different attitudes toward the United States and Europe. If it appears that the Bush administration is pushing the Iranians, public opinion will harden in Iran. On the other hand, because the Iranians value the trade relations and goodwill they enjoy in Europe, Tehran is very worried about being caught in open violation of an international agreement.

The Bush administration should be reluctant to jump to an "easy solution" to the Iranian nuclear program, such as a preemptive strike. Bombing would tend to delay, rather than eliminate, the problem. At the same time, however, non-enforcement-the failure to censure Iran in any way for its clear violations of obligations under the NPT-vitiates both the treaty and the IAEA. If Iran gets away with the violations it has already committed, other countries-Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and Algeria-may follow. A world in which every country has an independent nuclear force would be incompatible with any nonproliferation regime. The confusion alone would make agreement almost impossible.

The IAEA report lists Iran's manifold failures to tell the truth about its nuclear activities over many years. Although Iran has pledged to halt its enrichment activities, it is unclear how the IAEA will verify non-enrichment. Additionally, until Iran is in full compliance, the IAEA is going to argue that, while they are not in compliance, no enforcement action should be taken in order to secure Iranian cooperation. It is vitally important that the Bush administration puts forward a tougher line.

This summary was prepared by AEI intern Mario Loyola with AEI research assistant Vance Serchuk.