The Duck of Minerva

Iran, the IAEA and the US

7 November 2007

Once again, I was recently contacted by an Iranian journalist for Fars News Agency.

Kia Kojouri asked 2 questions, which I have slightly reworded:

1. While IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei says that there is no evidence that Iran is building nuclear weapons, the US and Frence are claiming that Iran seeks nuclear weapons. They have not presented any documentation for their claims. What do you think about that?

2. The IAEA declares that outstanding issues between Iran and the IAEA will be solved during the next few weeks. What’s your assessment about that?

This is my reply:

1. El Baradei says that Iran likely cannot build nuclear arms for 3 to 8 years, even if it is secretly seeking them. Indeed, the IAEA leader plainly admits that because of this basic fact, he is trying to tone down the hostile rhetoric against Iran so as to reduce the risk of war and allow ongoing diplomacy to work. El Baradei and others acknowledge that many questions about Iran’s nuclear program remain unanswered.

Then again, after the IAEA reported its worries about Iran’s nuclear program to the UN Security Council in 2006, that body twice imposed sanctions on Iran. El Baradei has previously told interviewers that coercive levers can help promote diplomatic success. Thus, the US and France are highlighting threats that do not currently worry El Baradei, but they may make his job easier by keeping the pressure on Iran to cooperate with the IAEA’s diplomatic efforts.

2. A number of IAEA officials have praised Iran for its diplomatic cooperation. At some point, however, the UN Security Council’s chief concern has to be addressed. If the UNSC views Iran’s enrichment program as a threat to international peace and security, then the diplomacy has to yield both technical and political results. Any IAEA deal that allows Iran to continue its enrichment program seems likely to displease various western states.

Indeed, the world may well be on the road to conflict if the IAEA fails to halt the Iranian enrichment program. At that point, the US and a “coalition of the willing” (or perhaps Israel) might take hostile action even without explicit UNSC authorization. Potentially, it is a very dangerous situation.

I certainly hope that Iran and the IAEA can reach a deal that satisfies all the major concerned parties.