The International Atomic Energy Agency convened a board of governors meeting June 14, debating how to respond to Iran's nuclear program, which critics say is dedicated to the development of nuclear weapons. The head of the United Nations' agency, Mohammad ElBaradei, announced that Tehran's cooperation has been "less than satisfactory."
The most recent IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program chronicles a long list of deceit, defiance, contradictory accounts and denial of access to some key sites. The report says the agency's inspectors found more traces of highly enriched uranium that could be bomb-grade, and that Iran had admitted importing parts for sophisticated P-2 centrifuges to enrich uranium. Equally troubling, the IAEA revealed that Iran told a black-market supplier it was interested in obtaining thousands of magnets for the P-2 centrifuges.
Experts believe, with two magnets per uranium enrichment centrifuge, Iran's desire to obtain such a large number of magnets means that its nuclear research activities significantly exceed what Iranian officials insist is just an experimental program. If the magnets are an accurate indicator of the scale of the nuclear program, Iran could soon be capable of generating enough weapons-grade nuclear material to produce several warheads a year.
The IAEA's revelations clearly depict a long-term pattern of denial and deception in Iran's behavior that can be only explained by Tehran's scheme to buy time and mask its military nuclear program. An Iranian opposition group, the Paris-based National Council of Resistance (NCR), alleged recently that Iran's Revolutionary Guards are supervising the nuclear program. The Revolutionary Guards, according to the NCR, are supposedly pursuing this project through four military organs; the Center for New Defense Preparedness and Technology, the Headquarters for New Warfare, the Nuclear Research Division of the Revolutionary Guards' Imam Hussein University and the Special Industries Division in the Military Industries Organization. If the program moves ahead without encountering obstacles or unexpected delays, Tehran could develop a nuclear weapon within two years, the NCR claims.
At the IAEA governing board meeting, the jockeying has already started over the expected resolution on Iran's program. Europe's big three - Britain, France and Germany have reportedly circulated a draft resolution that "deplores" Iran's hindering of inspections. At the same time, the draft is said to lack a meaningful trigger mechanism to bring Iran's case before the UN Security Council in the event that Tehran does not improve its cooperation with the IAEA. Without such a trigger mechanism, Tehran could potentially drag the inspection issue out, as it worked towards developing an atomic weapon.
Iran's primary objective in its cooperation with the IAEA is to buy time for weapons development by creating the impression that inspections are working. That the existing inspection regime is shedding new light on Tehran's secret nuclear program, however, does not mean it is hindering the development of a bomb. Conducting inspections just for the sake of having inspections, as time is running out, is a recipe for disaster. What is at stake is the IAEA's reputation as an effective non-proliferation agency. In addition, stability in the Persian Gulf region will take a substantial hit if Iran's mullahs come into possession of nuclear weapons.
In the mid-1980's, Tehran's leaders concluded that they needed a non-conventional arsenal to achieving their strategic aim of becoming a dominant power in the Persian Gulf region. They adopted asymmetric warfare as the cornerstone of their military doctrine. It would be simply naîve to suggest that Iran's rulers have since had a change of heart. If anything, the recent reports about Iran's increasing meddling in Iraq indicate that Tehran is determined to extend its influence. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Given their huge commercial ties with Tehran - which seems to be in a big rush to grant them lucrative contracts in exchange for concessions in the IAEA and other areas European nations, including France and Germany, may feel they have good reasons to adopt a conciliatory approach towards Iran. However, the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran the most active state sponsor of terrorism is far too ominous to let appeasers in the EU dictate policy toward Tehran. By being soft on Iran, the EU could inadvertently be pushing the issue of Tehran's nuclear program toward a military solution, a scenario nobody welcomes.
For now, Iran's breach of its nuclear obligations must be reported to the UN Security Council. UN sanctions are arguably the best available way to slow down Tehran's drive to develop atomic weapons. The IAEA does not need to find an actual bomb to conclude Iran is indeed running a nuclear weapons program. There is already enough evidence to refer the case to Security Council.
In the long term, however, only a democratic secular government, not the ruling theocracy, could ensure a WMD-free Iran. To this end, the EU capitals and Washington should embrace Iran's democratic opposition forces that are working to unseat the ruling mullahs. The clock is ticking.
Reza Bulorchi is the Executive Director of the US Alliance for Democratic Iran.