IAEA steps up pressure on Iran with condemnation of its nuclear defiance

Russia and China – reversing earlier stances –  joined today in the IAEA's near-unanimous vote expressing 'serious concern' over Iran's nuclear program.

Herwig Prammer/Reuters
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano attends a news conference during a board of governors meeting at the United Nations headquarters in Vienna Monday. The 35-member governing board of the IAEA voted nearly unanimously Thursday to condemn Iran over its nuclear program.

The board of the UN nuclear watchdog in Vienna voted nearly unanimously today to condemn Iran over its nuclear program, with the US and Western allies bringing Russia and China on board.

The 35-member governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expressed "serious concern that Iran continues to defy" UN Security Council sanctions that require a halt to enrichment, and the resolution of outstanding questions about possible nuclear weapons-related work. 

The participation of Russia and China – which have shielded Iran from sanctions in the past – adds further pressure on Iran, but may have been more aimed at showing Israel that there is big-power unity behind a diplomatic, not military, solution to curb Iran's nuclear progress.

Still, compromise language meant to bring Russia and China along meant the text also supported the "inalienable right" of all signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes – a key inclusion for Iran.

Only Cuba voted against this 12th IAEA resolution in a decade, with three countries abstaining. Universal big-power support was seen as critical by diplomats to convince Israel to allow diplomatic efforts to continue, instead of launching strikes in a bid to stop Iran's nuclear work

Stalled negotiations

The IAEA board resolution is the latest twist of Iran's nuclear saga. Negotiations between Iran and world powers have stalled after three rounds this year; UN, US, and EU sanctions have choked Iran's oil exports and business dealings.

And Canada last week withdrew its envoys from Tehran and closed the Iranian embassy on its soil, claiming the Islamic Republic to be the "most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today."

"This year, now, the Iranians are under pressure," says Shahram Chubin, a Geneva-based Iran specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, contacted in Paris.

"The Europeans have joined in, sanctions are biting, the rial [currency] is down, they have a domestic legitimacy problem since 2009, and the Arab Spring has left them extremely isolated regionally, because sectarian division is much more real than it was two to three years ago," says Mr. Chubin, author of "Iran's Nuclear Ambitions."

"And [Iran's] whole message to the region – give or take the last 48 hours – is completely forgotten: nobody's interested in the 'resistance front,' nobody's interested in Israel, in fact nobody's interested in the United States," says Chubin. "So their whole visiting card to the Arab world as a 'resistance axis' has disappeared. Nobody in Egypt, or Tunisia or Libya or anywhere else, has talked about them."

The IAEA rebuke comes as Iran continues to advance its nuclear program, though questions persist about past and perhaps present nuclear weapons-related work.

The most recent IAEA report on Iran, published two weeks ago, showed that Iran has stepped up its production of uranium enriched to 20 percent purity, and had doubled the number of centrifuges it had installed – but not connected or turned on – at its most fortified underground site.

The report also noted, however, that Iran had converted about half of that 20 percent enriched material into fuel plates for a small research reactor in Tehran.

That is Iran's most sensitive work, and the top priority of US and Western negotiators, because it is a few technical steps from weapons grade. But Iran's decision to convert so much of it to fuel makes it very difficult to now be put to any weapons use – ostensibly leaving Iran further from a hypothetical weapons capability than it had been just a few months earlier.

Analysts have noted that such a step is not consistent with a regime racing to build an atomic bomb.

A controversial site

Still an issue in IAEA reports and in Vienna today is the military site at Parchin, southeast of Tehran, where IAEA inspectors believe implosion tests for triggering a nuclear blast may have been conducted a decade ago.

Iran sees access to the site as linked to a broader framework deal with the IAEA that would resolve all outstanding issues, including Parchin. But satellite imagery in recent months has shown what the IAEA called "substantial" changes and landscaping that "significantly hampered" its investigation.

"Iran has been taking measures that appear consistent with an effort to remove evidence of its past activities at Parchin," US diplomat Robert Wood told the IAEA board today. Iran had been "systematically demolishing" the site, he said.

The meager result of three rounds of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) were also criticized at the meeting.

Declaring that Iran's "procrastination is unacceptable," the EU told the board in a statement: "Iran has not engaged seriously and without preconditions in talks aimed at restoring international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of it nuclear program."

Iran, likewise, accuses the world powers of imposing their own unacceptable preconditions and mishandling the negotiations by insisting that Iran give up its most sensitive nuclear work at the outset, but offering virtually no relief from sanctions or other punitive measures.

New intelligence

The IAEA resolution comes after the Associated Press this week reported that the agency has received new intelligence from Israel, the US, and two other nations that indicated Iran "has advanced its work on calculating the destructive power of an atomic warhead through a series of computer models it ran sometime within the past three years."

The AP report stated: "Such computer mock-ups typically assess how high explosives compress fissile warhead material, setting off the chain reaction that results in a nuclear explosion."

Iran has dismissed past intelligence documents about previous alleged nuclear weapons-related work as fabrications.

In the background has been the steady drumbeat of Israel urging military action. This week Mr. Netanyahu stepped up his rhetoric, aiming at President Obama's diplomatic approach, and the White House effort to ensure that Israel does not launch a strike.

"The world tells Israel, 'Wait. There's still time,'" Netanyahu said on Tuesday. "And I say: 'Wait for what? Wait until when?' Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel."

Iranian officials dismiss Israeli threats, and routinely hurl their own counter-threats at the Jewish state. But Iran is facing greater challenges.

"The Iranians are regionally isolated and internationally exposed, and domestically they are scrambling," says Chubin of Carnegie. "All of that means they are weak, so they can either give in, or they can push back. And the answer is they are doing both.

"They are saying, 'Yes, let's meet, let's talk, let's be reasonable,' with the hope that they can get the Chinese and the Russians to say, 'Hey, Iran is being reasonable,' " says Chubin. "And the push back is in Syria" with declarations by top Iranian officials that they "will not allow" the regime to collapse.

Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott

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