Sometime next week, Director of the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) Muhammad el-Baradaei will publish his latest report on Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. The report will set the tone for the meeting of the IAEA’s Board of Governors next month when its 32 members discuss further steps the organisation should take in dealing with the dossier.
The report could go three different ways:
+ It could inform the board that the Islamic Republic remains in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). In that case, the matter will remain in referral to the United Nations’ Security Council that has already passed four resolutions on it.
+ The report could give the Islamic Republic the all-clear by stating that it had met its obligations, answered all remaining questions, and removed o all ambiguities. Such a report could make it difficult for the UN Security Council to continue sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
+ Finally, the report could come in a fish-tail style, that is to say not offering a clear position on whether or not the Islamic Republic is trying to build an atom bomb.
Of the three options, the last is the worst.
It could encourage Iran to ignore the Security Council resolutions and pursue its present strategy regardless of its consequences. It could also encourage the Security Council to tighten the screws on Iran if only to protect what is left of the UN’s authority.
A “fish-tail” report could also complicate US President Barack Obama’s efforts to forge a dialogue with Tehran.
If the past is an indication, El Baradaei seems likely to opt for the “fish-tail” as he did in the case of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and in the case of Iran before its referral to the Security Council.
El Baradaei’s critics have always accused him of using ambiguity to protect his career. Refusing to take a clear position enabled him to maintain the support of all sides and thus keep his job.
However, El Baradaei’s exercise in ambiguity may not be entirely prompted by mercenary considerations.
After all, he has to operate within the limits of the NPT, an imprecise treaty, and the limits imposed on the IAEA’s powers of inspection and investigation.
In the case of Iran, for example, the IAEA may inspect only those sites and installations that the Islamic Republic allows. Thus, if Iran has parallel sites and installations where illicit activities take place, the IAEA would have no means of knowing for certain. Even when such activities are known in the public domain, the IAEA cannot take a position without actually inspecting them. One such case is the heavy water plant that Iran is building in Arak, west of Tehran. The plant could be used both for research and scientific training, and for making nuclear warheads.
Even where inspection is allowed, such as in the case of Iran’s uranium enrichment, the IAEA cannot be certain about the political decisions concerning the ultimate use of the product. Enriched uranium could be used both as fuel to generate electricity and as raw material for making a bomb.
With all these caveats, El Baradaei’s could still do something useful if he offered the board his assessment on the balance of probabilities.
There are several facts that El Baradaei could underline.
The first is that the Islamic Republic, by its own admission, has a long history of violating the NPT; almost two decades, in fact.
The second is that the enriched uranium that Iran is stockpiling has no use as fuel.
Iran has no nuclear power stations where the uranium enriched in Natanz could be used as fuel.
Iran’s only nuclear power station is still under construction at Bushehr and will not be operational until the end of this year. Even then, the uranium that Iran is enriching cannot be used there. The plant, designed by Germans and built by Russians, is programmed to use only Russian fuel with its specific code. In any case, Russia has already contracted to provide the plant with the fuel it needs for the first 10 years of its existence. (In fact, Russia has stated it is ready to supply the plant with all the fuel needed for the entire 37 years of its projected lifespan.)
Tehran says it has plans to build more nuclear power stations, mostly with Russian and Chinese help. But those, too, provided they are ever built, would have to use specially coded fuel from either Russia or China.
Moreover, uranium that Iran is enriching cannot be exported as fuel to any other country with a nuclear power plant.
All that leaves a key question unanswered: why is Iran ready to suffer sanctions and risk war by producing enriched uranium of the type that no one could use as fuel?
Are the Khomeinists spending billions of dollars, provoking a regional arms race, and facing conflict with the UN solely to indulge in political machismo?
However, the only logical conclusion is that they are doing so because they need the enriched uranium to build nuclear warheads.
To be sure, we don’t know whether they will proceed to do so immediately or will be satisfied with having the capacity to do so if and when they wish.
In either case, one fact is clear: in spirit, if not the letter, the Islamic Republic is in violation of he NPT and has been so for years.
A “ fish-tail” report that muddies the waters could mean the end of the NPT and the IAEA.
The reason is clear: if major questions in this field have to be handled by the Security Council, who needs the IAEA and the NPT?
A “fish-tail” report may yet produce the one outcome that El Baradaei’s critics claim he has dreaded: threatening his job.