The U.N. nuclear watchdog is expected this week to issue its most detailed report yet on research in Iran seen as geared to developing atomic bombs, heightening international suspicions of Tehran's agenda and stoking Middle East tensions.This is not the first time that the IAEA has sounded a warning on Iran's nuclear program.
Western powers are likely to seize on the International Atomic Energy Agency document, which has been preceded by media speculation in Israel of military strikes against Iranian nuclear sites, to press for more sanctions on the oil producer.
But Russia and China fear the publication now of the IAEA's findings could hurt any chance of diplomacy resolving the long-running nuclear row and they have lobbied against it, signaling opposition to any new punitive U.N. measures against Iran.
Iran rejects allegations of atomic weapons ambitions, saying its nuclear program is aimed at producing electricity.
The report is tentatively scheduled to be submitted to IAEA member states on November 9 before a quarterly meeting the following week of the agency's 35-nation board of governors in Vienna.
It "will be followed by a U.S.-European Union push for harsher sanctions against Iran at the U.N. Security Council, where Western powers will meet stiff resistance from Russia and China," said Trita Parsi, an expert on U.S.-Iran relations.
The document is expected to give fresh evidence of research and other activities with little other application than atomic bomb-making, including studies linked to the development of an atom bomb trigger and computer modeling of a nuclear weapon.
Sources briefed on the report also say it will include information from both before and after 2003 -- the year in which U.S. spy services estimated, in a controversial 2007 assessment, that Iran had halted outright "weaponization" work.
Many conservative experts criticized the 2007 findings as inaccurate and naive, and U.S. intelligence agencies now believe Iranian leaders have resumed closed-door debates over the last four years about whether to build a nuclear bomb.
"The primary new information is likely to be any work that Iran has engaged in after 2003 ... Iran is understood to have continued or restarted some research and development since then," said Peter Crail of the Arms Control Association, a U.S.-based advocacy group.
The sources familiar with the document said that among other things it would support allegations that Iran built a large steel container for the purpose of carrying out tests with high explosives applicable to nuclear weapons.
"This is not a country that is sitting down just doing some theoretical stuff on a computer," a Western official said about the IAEA's body of evidence, which is based on Western intelligence as well as the agency's own investigations.
Ma'ariv reports that a high ranking Russian diplomat said that his country "would not shed any tears" if the West attacked Iran's nuclear sites, even though Russia is publicly against the IAEA release of this report.
The Washington Post adds that there is evidence that Iran received crucial information on nuclear weapons design from a Russian scientist as well as from Pakistan and North Korea.
On the other hand, the New York Times is bending over backwards to criticize the IAEA report before it is released.
The Guardian adds some crucial context:
Enriching to 90% [the amount of purification needed for weapons] is not easy, as the level of impurities in the uranium fuel becomes more of a challenge. However, since February 2010 Iran has been successfully making 20%-enriched uranium at Natanz, ostensibly to fuel a medical research reactor in Tehran.
Western governments allege this is a pretext as Iran lacks the means to manufacture the necessary fuel rods. They point out that, in terms of technical difficulty, 20% uranium is nine-tenths of the way to weapon-grade material. In fact, leaked US diplomatic cables reveal that as far back as April 2009 US officials were convinced that Iran had mastered the process.
Iran has more than 70kg of 20% uranium – about a fifth of the quantity needed to make a bomb if further enriched. Of even greater international concern was the confirmation in the September IAEA report that Iran had installed a set, or "cascade", of centrifuges at a new site at Fordow, near to the Shia holy city of Qom.
The Fordow site, whose existence was revealed in 2009, is under a mountain and would be extremely difficult to damage by aerial bombing. Iranian authorities claim 10 other enrichment sites are being prepared but no sign of them has materialised.
At the moment it is the transfer of enrichment to Fordow that represents the ticking clock for western military intervention. Once the bulk of production is established there, the programme would be a much harder nut to crack.
The transfer of Iran's stockpile of 20% uranium from the relative vulnerability of Natanz to the impregnability of Fordow would be seen as even more threatening. "That would be a huge red line – a very significant move that would be very hard to ignore," a western diplomat said.
It looks like those people that Reuters dismiss as "conservative experts" who criticized the 2007 NIE report were right. I gave my own criticisms of the NIE report here.
(h/t Yoel for Ma'ariv article)