U.N. Atomic Agency is Quietly Managing to Disarm Iran

By Ray Takeyh and Joseph Cirincione

Financial Times (London)
February 27, 2008


It is a popular parlor game in Washington's corridors of power and
European chancelleries to deride Mohamed ElBaradei as a quixotic
bureaucrat determined to subvert the Western strategy of restraining
Iran's nuclear program. The latest International Atomic Energy Agency
report suggesting progress has been made by Iran is quietly disparaged by
the Bush administration as another clean pass for the rash theocracy. The
point that Mr. ElBaradei's critics miss is that he is judiciously
achieving the goals that they seemingly desire -- the disarmament of the
Islamic Republic.

The IAEA process, particularly the adoption last year of a "work plan" to
investigate suspect activities, has been criticized by many Americans.
The latest report shows, however, that process is working. The
investigation and inspections -- even the limited ones the IAEA is
currently able to conduct -- have, in effect, shut down direct weapons
work and resolved many of the outstanding historical questions.

One of the main issues that triggered headlines in 2006 was the IAEA
discovery of traces of highly-enriched uranium on machinery that Iran said
it was using to produce only low-enriched uranium for fuel. The new
report accepts Iran's evidence that the traces came from contamination in
Pakistan -- the country that sold Iran the machines. The agency considers
this question resolved, but wants more information to verify it.
Similarly, the agency accepts Iran's evidence that equipment it acquired,
such as balancing machines and magnets that could be used for nuclear
weapons research, is now being used for legitimate civilian purposes. It
is also satisfied that experiments with polonium-210 (that can be used as
a trigger for an explosive nuclear chain reaction) were not part of a
larger weapon project.

The main outstanding issues relate to evidence provided by the U.S. from a
laptop computer said to have come from Iran containing documents such as a
design for a missile warhead and detailed nuclear weapon-related studies.
The report gives the most complete public description yet of the laptop's
contents. Iran dismisses the documents as "fabrications." But the IAEA
wants more information "critical to an assessment of a possible military
dimension to Iran's nuclear program."

In sum, the IAEA investigations have produced enough circumstantial
evidence to support the view that Iran probably conducted nuclear weapons
research in the past. But the evidence to date also indicates, as the
U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran concluded last November, that
Iran stopped this direct weapons work. The path now is to recognize this
success, deepen it, find a way for Iran to come clean safely on its past
work and to prevent Iran from developing capabilities that could allow it
to produce weapon material in the next decade.

Mr. ElBaradei has disproved the notion that Iran's nuclear strategy is
immutable. Despite its apparent solidarity, there are divisions within
the theocratic regime on the urgency of the nuclear program. It is true
that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his militant allies' calculations
are susceptible to neither offers of incentives nor threats of force.
However, for the more tempered members of the ruling élite, the nuclear
issue is considered within the context of international relations.
Indeed, the fact that Iran has suspended the weapon design component of
its programme since 2003 and is largely complying with the IAEA "work
plan" reflects the propensity of the state to adhere to certain limits.

The best means of diminishing the hardliners is for the U.S. and its
European allies to offer Iran a chance for a resumed relationship. The
prospect of diplomatic ties with America and integration into the global
economy will motivate pragmatic elements of the theocracy. Iran will have
an incentive to restrain its nuclear ambitions and confine its program
within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The U.S. and Europe are right to be concerned about Iran's nuclear plans.
However, a strategy of employing threats of economic strangulation and
Security Council resolutions has only empowered the more reactionary
elements that thrive on Western animosity. Instead of sanctions, the West
should appreciate that a nuanced diplomacy of reconciliation could both
regulate Iran's nuclear program and help stabilize the Middle East. It is
the much maligned Mr. ElBaradei that has paved the way for success.

--Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations;
Joseph Cirincione will become president of the Ploughshares Fund next