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Experts: IAEA report makes case for tightened Iran sanctions

A new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency found that there is "credible" information suggesting that Iran's nuclear program has military dimensions. Pictured here is a heavy water nuclear reactor near Arak, Iran. (Wikipedia Commons)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The international nuclear watchdog has spoken on Iran, and although its report does not have the smoking gun some had anticipated, it makes a cumulative case damning enough for the Obama administration to ask for increased sanctions.

JTA canvassed Washington Iran-watchers on Tuesday afternoon in the hours after leaked copies of the International Atomic Energy Agency report — 10 pages, with a 14-page annex accumulating the evidence — plunked down on desks across the U.S. capital.

“It’s a pretty impressive layout of the IAEA case based on the info they have that there is a coherent clandestine program dedicated to developing a weapon,” said Michael Adler, a journalist with the French news agency AFP who for years covered Iran’s nuclear program and now is a scholar in residence at the Wilson Center, a congressionally mandated foreign affairs think tank here run by the Smithsonian Institution.

“But it’s not a document you can take to the president and say, ‘This is a serious threat, we’ve got to do something.’ It’s not enough for military action — it’s not enough of an incremental increase.”

The report, officially released only to the 35 nations that make up the IAEA, appeared late Tuesday on the website of the Institute for Science and International Security, which is headed by former U.N. arms inspector David Albright. The report describes as “credible” the information suggesting military dimensions of a nuclear program that Iran has insisted is peaceful, and it says some activities are specific to the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

“Credible,” Adler noted, was well short of “very likely,” the language used earlier this year by the IAEA to describe Syria’s intentions before Israel destroyed an under-construction Syrian reactor in a 2007 airstrike. Some reports in advance of the new IAEA report’s publication suggested that it would have new and damning evidence of an Iranian bomb in the making.

Nonetheless, Obama administration officials have said that they intend to use the report to make the case for intensified sanctions on Iran to other nations that until now have proven reluctant to ratchet up pressure, most significantly Russia and China.

“I can safely say the pressure is going to increase,” Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, told JTA in an exclusive interview the day before the report’s release. “The IAEA report will provide information and will provide impetus that will lead the United States and a number of our partners to tighten the pressure.”

Shapiro would not outline the nature of the pressure, but lawmakers in the Congress and pro-Israel groups already were citing the report Tuesday afternoon to tout legislation aimed at tightening sanctions. U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said the report should trigger the sanctioning of Iran’s central bank, an action that would severely limit Iran’s trade opportunities by cutting it off from any interactions involving the United States.

“Action in the Senate and in the executive branch should occur on collapsing the Central Bank of Iran,” he said in a statement.

The American Jewish Committee agreed, issuing a statement urging “significantly toughened worldwide sanctions on Iran, focusing centrally on the regime’s Achilles’ heel — its banking and energy sectors.”

AJC also said “no options should be off the table,” code for the possible threat of military action. Leaks from Israel in recent weeks have suggested that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were considering such action, although in the past several days Israeli officials have walked back from those claims.

“War is not a picnic. We want a picnic. We don’t want a war,” Barak told Israel Radio on Tuesday before the release of the IAEA report. He said Israel “had not yet decided to embark on any operation,” but that the Jewish state needed to be responsible for its own security and keep its options open.

The strength of the report, analysts said, is that it shows how IAEA inspections, intelligence reports from IAEA member nations and debriefings of associates of A.Q. Khan, the rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist who sold nuclear know-how to Iran, corroborate one another.

The IAEA “wanted to go to lengths to show why this information was credible,” said Peter Crail, a research analyst at the Arms Control Association. “Not only did the intelligence agencies’ information match up with the agency’s own investigations of Iran, it did with discussions with members of the A.Q. Khan network.”

The report details evidence of an indigenous program to develop a trigger for a nuclear device and to acquire from overseas other equipment for manufacturing a nuclear delivery device. It also details evidence of efforts to set up a centrifuge system to enrich uranium to military grades.

The report makes the case that much of Iran’s progress was disrupted by revelations of the program in 2003, and that since then it has been slow to recover.

If anything, that makes the case for heightened sanctions, Crail said.

“There’s a case to be made that existing sanctions on Iran’s nuclear missile program need to be strengthened by Russia, China and the developing world,” he said. “One of the things it details is that they’re trying to procure parts.”

If that’s not a smoking gun, it is its equivalent in terms of cumulative evidence, said Stephen Rademaker, a top nuclear negotiator for President George W. Bush who is now a principal with the Podesta Group, a bipartisan public policy and lobbying outfit.

“It tees up the issue for a political decision as to whether the international community is ready to accept” a nuclear Iran, said Rademaker, who noted the significance of Russia and China’s efforts in advance of the report’s publication to keep it from being released.

“It’s easier to look the other way without the officially authorized international efforts pronouncing the information credible,” he said.

Sharon Squassoni, the director of the Proliferation Prevention Program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that the report was released absent the usual occasion of such reports — an impending IAEA board meeting.

That, she said, suggested that the inspectors believed the matter was urgent enough to merit widespread public debate.

“It shouldn’t just be about diplomacy among a handful of countries,” she said. “These are issues that affect everybody’s security. It’s important to have this information in the public domain.”