3 Things You Need to Know about the IAEA Report
As Iran war-fever again breaks out upon the release of the latest IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program, the single most important determinant of 'how many years Iran is from a nuclear weapon' bears repeating: according to U.S. and Israeli intelligence, Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon. Amidst this media frenzy, one can forget that centrifuges spinning on their own don't speed toward nuclear weapons. People (in governments) make the political decision about whether or not to make nuclear weapons. As countless top national security experts have pointed out, diplomacy is the best way to persuade the people in Iran -- yes, there are living breathing people behind those centrifuges -- to never make that decision.
1. The Report Confirms (Again): Iran Is Still Not Building Nuclear Weapons
The IAEA report highlights troubling developments about Iran's nuclear program, but it also confirms what every other Iran report from the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog has verified: Iran is still using its enriched uranium strictly for peaceful purposes. The report further confirms U.S. and Israeli intelligence assessments that Iran is not building a nuclear weapon.
Nonetheless, the report has unleashed a firestorm of new speculations about 'how far Iran is from the bomb.' These breathless reports predicted that Iran has been on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons for more than a quarter century. In fact, in 1992, Israeli parliamentarian (now prime minister) Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Iran was 3-5 years from the ability to produce a nuclear weapon, and that the threat had to be "uprooted by an international front headed by the U.S."
The primary reason Iran didn't live up to predictions of acquiring nuclear weapons is simply because Iran has not decided to race toward the bomb. As Abraham Lincoln said, the best way to predict the future is to create it. Accordingly, the best way to predict the future of Iran's nuclear program is to support a diplomatic resolution that would end the U.S.-Iran-Israel crisis.
Negotiating with Iran has the potential to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran forever. Even the most ardent proponents of a military strike admit that an attack would only delay Iran's (currently civilian) nuclear program for a couple years at best. As U.S. and Israeli officials have warned, an attack could lead to a catastrophic regional war and embolden Iranian hardliners to develop a bomb as a deterrent from further attacks from the U.S. and Israel.
The IAEA's findings again underscore that this is the time for diplomacy to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. In addition, it highlights how this time should not be wasted, and that the IAEA is a critical component in negotiations with Iran. It is widely known among Iran experts that the surest path for successful diplomacy is to use the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as the basis of talks. Using the NPT as the fundamental basis for the negotiations underscores that Iran has both the right to nuclear power and the responsibility to verify that its power is for peaceful purposes only.
Basing negotiations on the core principles of the NPT and reciprocity (a 'give and take approach') are largely why the talks between the U.S., Iran, and five other world powers in Istanbul were so successful, and why the proceeding talks were less so.
2. The IAEA's New Findings: How to Understand the Headlines
There are three major findings that are unique to this IAEA report besides verifying that Iran's nuclear program is currently used for peaceful purposes and (re)confirming the issues blocking a resolution to the crisis over Iran's nuclear program. The Obama administration and preeminent experts on Iran's nuclear program, including Mark Fitzpatrick from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and Daryl Kimball and Tom Collin of the Arms Control Association, all agree that while the report is certainly troubling, it is "not a 'game-changer'" and "there is still time and space to pursue diplomacy."
A) Iran Doubles Centrifuges at Fordow, But Hasn't Turned Them On (Yet) or: How Iran Took a Cue From My Old Laundromat
Most of the headlines about this report focused on how Iran doubled its enrichment capacity by doubling its centrifuges at its underground nuclear facility called Fordow. But, Iran has not started to use any of its new centrifuges. As a senior U.S. administration official told the New York Times, "they are creating a tremendous production capability, but they are not yet using it."
It reminds me of a laundromat my family frequented when I was growing up. In response to complaints that there weren't enough functional washing machines, the owner said that they would be installing new machines. When they arrived, however, it was clear from the snake of coils around the base of several washing machines awkwardly shoved together that many of the 'new' washing machines wouldn't be put to use for quite some time, and that this 'expanded capacity' was of questionable value. Incidentally, like Iran's 'new' centrifuges, the washing machines seemed to be a model from the 1970s.
The lines to wash our laundry that day were just as long, and while one could have reported that our laundromat had 'doubled its washing capacity,' the only difference from then on was that there were more non-functioning machines.
Analogy aside, there is a crucial distinction between 'expanding enrichment capacity' and actually putting the expanded capacity to use -- especially in this political climate. Iran could be trying to improve its bargaining position in future negotiations, as journalist Gareth Porter has written about at length. The Obama administration official mentioned above wisely pointed out to the New York Times that this approach of expanding their capacity without using it "gives them leverage, but they think it also stops short of creating the pretext for an attack."
B) Iran Increases Enrichment, While Reducing Most Dangerous Stockpile
While the IAEA reported on the troubling news that Iran increased its enrichment of 20-percent uranium, there is also some very good news: Iran has actually reduced its stockpile of this 20-percent uranium that could be used for 'breaking out' for weapons-grade material. As Porter points out, "that higher level enriched uranium has been the main focus of U.S. diplomatic demands on Iran ever since 2009, on the ground that it represents the greatest threat of an Iranian move to obtain a nuclear weapon capability."
Uranium is enriched by centrifuges, which are machines that spin uranium like a washing machine operating on a supersonic spin cycle. This 'spun' uranium can be enriched at various percentages of purity. The U.S. and others have been concerned about this 20-percent enrichment because once Iran has enriched uranium to 20-percent, it is most of the way to 90-percent uranium, which could be used for a nuclear weapon.
Iran, however, says that it needs this 20-percent uranium for the production of medical isotopes, to provide radiotherapy for cancer patients. By accelerating its use of 20-percent uranium for fueling its nuclear reactor that produces medical isotopes, Iran has reduced its stockpile of available uranium that could potentially be used for making weapons-grade uranium.
To find out this good news about Iran's nuclear program, you had to read beneath the headlines of the major media, as FAIR pointed out. The Washington Post, however, did mention that Iran decreased its 20-percent stockpile, noting, "the IAEA also found that Iran had converted much of the new material to metal form for use in a nuclear research reactor. Once the conversion has taken place, the uranium can't be further enriched to weapons-grade material, Obama administration officials said."
C) Iran Still Not Fully Cooperating With IAEA
The IAEA also reports Iran's failure to fully cooperate with its investigations of Iran's nuclear program. While troubling, this isn't 'new' news, but rather underscores the continuing need for full cooperation with the IAEA to be central to a diplomatic resolution to the crisis over Iran's nuclear program.
3. Still Time and Space for Diplomacy to Work -- Don't Waste It
As White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said, "there is still time and space" for diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff. Unfortunately, both sides carry responsibility for squandering that time, and are focused on improving their negotiating positions rather than actually doing the hard work of the negotiations itself.
As Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund explained, the Iranians have likely calculated that the latest developments chronicled in the IAEA report will help them get a better deal:
"The Iranians are excellent chess players... They are continuing to enhance the value of their bargaining chips... If you were the Iranians, why would you negotiate right now? You would want to wait for a better deal."
The outlines of what this 'better deal' would be are well known and ironically agreed on by U.S. and Iranian officials serious about reaching a deal. A crisis-ending deal, the national security establishment on both sides of the world would agree, would require Iran to limit its nuclear enrichment program and fully cooperate with the IAEA, while the U.S.-led sanctions siege currently imposed on Iran would end, and normalization of relations with Iran would begin.
That deal will only happen through robust, sustained and comprehensive diplomacy. You can help do your part to make that happen by sending a message to the President and Congress during this dangerous time to support diplomacy, not war, with Iran.