Yes, the IAEA is worried Iran is hiding something

The latest IAEA report on Iran says that the country is not complying with inspections, is accelerating nuclear enrichment, and isn't being open about past possible weaponization work. Just like the last one.

Ronald Zak/AP
Herman Nackaerts (c.) Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Safeguards of the IAEA is interviewed as he arrives after his flight from Iran at Vienna's Schwechat airport, Austria, on Wednesday. The top UN nuclear official says his team could 'could not find a way forward' in attempts to persuade Iran to talk about suspected secret work on atomic arms. Nackaerts says the talks in Tehran were inconclusive, although his mission approached the talks 'in a constructive spirit.'

The latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran's nuclear program is in much the same vein of past reports: There is plenty of smoke, but not fire, on possible nuclear-related weapons work by the Islamic Republic.

Recent visits to Iran by IAEA members resulted in limited cooperation from Tehran, a refusal to provide access to the Parchin military base where inspectors believe work on a detonating component for a nuclear bomb has been conducted, and evidence of an expanding program of nuclear enrichment. Two sets of meetings with Iranian officials went nowhere, with Tehran effectively stonewalling the IAEA, according to the report.

On the IAEA's concerns about possible weapons-related work, Iran "dismissed the Agency’s concerns in relation to the aforementioned issues, largely on the grounds that Iran considered them to be based on unfounded allegations," the report says. The IAEA board "called on Iran to engage seriously and without preconditions in talks aimed at restoring international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme" and "identified the clarification of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme as the top priority."

In short, the IAEA and everyone else following the question of Iran's nuclear program, which the country insists is for peaceful purposes only, are pretty much where they've been for over a year now. Iran is not fully cooperating with inspectors, creating the impression that it's hiding something. The IAEA can't report on places it can't visit, fueling more doubt. And Iran continues to dig in its heels on not providing more access and transparency.

None of that looks good. But there is no evidence, only doubt – albeit doubt that Tehran itself continues to sow. Here's how the report puts it, summarizing a position laid out in greater detail last November:

A detailed analysis of the information available to the Agency (indicates) that Iran has carried out activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. This information, which comes from a wide variety of independent sources, including from a number of Member States, from the Agency’s own efforts and from information provided by Iran itself, is assessed by the Agency to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that: prior to the end of 2003 the activities took place under a structured programme; that some continued after 2003; and that some may still be ongoing.

Is there a reason for concealment if weapons work isn't ongoing? (The US intelligence establishment's position has been that weapons related work has been stalled for some time.) Perhaps. Ambiguity is useful in sowing doubt in foreign powers like the US, where politicians have been muttering about regime change in Iran for some time. In the run up to the Iraq war, Saddam Hussein didn't comply fully with inspectors looking for chemical and biological weapons programs that he didn't have. In that case, he appeared to hope that the chance he might have such weapons could deter an attack.

It's possible that Iran is playing a similar game. But its nuclear capabilities, particularly when it comes to enriching uranium, are clearly expanding. It is producing fuel that can be used in nuclear reactors or, if enriched further, that could be at the core of a bomb.

The IAEA's interest in Parchin stems from what it calls credible information that Iran installed a containment vessel at Parchin in 2000 that could be used to test the high explosive detonator for a nuclear bomb, and that such tests may have been undertaken with the assistance of a "foreign" nuclear expert. Though no nationality was named, the international nuclear proliferation network of Pakistan's Abdul Qadeer Khan was still in full swing a decade ago.

The agency has little information about what has happened at Parchin in the past -- and what work may or may not be going on there now -- and is eager to remedy that, but Iran has been insistent in saying "no." It appears the agency considers the question of Parchin a top priority.

IAEA "Director General (Yukiya Amano) urges Iran to address the Agency’s serious concerns about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme, including, as a first step, by responding to the Agency’s questions related to Parchin and the foreign expert, and by granting early access in that regard," the report says.

What now? Any hopes that recent outreach to Tehran and the series of talks carried out there in recent weeks would lead to concessions, and more clarity, has been dimmed. Doubt and fear over the nuclear program remain.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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