Iran Hawks Quickly Point to Flaws in Nuclear Watchdog’s Report on Tehran

The fear is that the report or, more precisely, the headlines it has generated will boost advocates of diplomacy with the Islamic Republic in Washington and Europe, who are pushing talks even as Tehran is rejecting their entreaties.

Via Wikimedia Commons
The Flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Via Wikimedia Commons

An international watchdog’s report that is widely perceived as exonerating Tehran of carrying out illicit nuclear activities is being criticized by Jerusalem, raising the stakes for next week’s meeting of the watchdog’s board of directors. 

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s report, circulated this week to its board members, was celebrated at Tehran. The Vienna-based agency “resolved” questions about a concealed nuclear facility and over Iran’s uranium enrichment to near-weapons-level purity, the Associated Press reported Thursday, predicting the new report would “ease pressure slightly on Tehran.”

Iran hawks are concerned that the report or, more precisely, the headlines it has generated will boost advocates of diplomacy with the Islamic Republic in Washington and Europe, who are pushing talks even as Tehran is rejecting their entreaties.  

“I’m aware of all the reporting on Iran,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said in a Hebrew-language video clip posted Friday on his Twitter account. “I have a very clear message both to Iran and to the international community: Israel will do whatever it needs to do to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms.”

His message followed a sharply worded statement from the Israeli foreign ministry. “Iran continues to lie to the IAEA and deceive the international community,” a ministry spokesman, Lior Haiat, said. “The information in the file implicitly points to two faces of blatant Iranian violations of the inspection agreements.”

Press reports zeroed-in on two issues relating to the Iranian nuclear program. One involves a facility at Fordo, where uranium particles enriched to 83.7 percent have been found. The other relates to a previously undeclared facility at Merivan, linking the site to a program hidden from inspectors. 

On the eve of next week’s IAEA board of governors meeting, the Israelis are focusing on Marivan, a Harvard Belfer Center associate, Olli Heinonen, tells the Sun. “They want to alert the board of governors that this needs to stop,” he says, referring to  parallel nuclear programs that Iran has kept hidden from nuclear inspectors for decades. 

A former deputy director-general at the IAEA, Mr. Heinonen says at the same time that the press headlines about the report misinterpret what it actually says. The agency has “not given good briefings for the press this time,” he says. 

As cited by AP, the IAEA report on the deeply dug Fordo facility, where particles are enriched to just below the weapons-grade of 90 percent purity, says the agency “had assessed that the information provided was not inconsistent with Iran’s explanation.” It “had no further questions on this matter at this stage,” the IAEA reported. 

At the site where militarization of the nuclear program was suspected, the IAEA “at this time has no additional questions on the depleted uranium particles detected at Marivan,” it reported. “The matter is no longer outstanding at this stage.” 

Such language is “standard IAEA reporting style,” Mr. Heinonen says. “I gave press briefings a hundred times, explaining to reporters the difference between ‘consistent’ and ‘not inconsistent,’” he adds, and “‘no additional questions as at his stage’ means that at a later date they will return to the matter, not that they closed it.”

Washington has “full confidence” in the nuclear watchdog, the Department of State said in a statement on the latest report. “We appreciate the IAEA’s extensive efforts to engage Iran on longstanding questions related to Iran’s safeguards obligations.” 

Meanwhile, officials in President Biden’s administration insist that diplomacy is the “best” way to end Iran’s nuclear quest. The White House’s top Mideast adviser, Brett McGurk, made a secret visit to Oman this week to discuss “possible diplomatic outreach to Iran regarding its nuclear program,” Axios reports.

Oman was where President Obama’s representatives made an initial approach to Tehran in a process that led to the 2015 nuclear deal. Mr. McGurk’s visit may have centered on a swap of American prisoners for Iran hostages. 

Yet, he could also have raised the possibility of a much-discussed “interim agreement,” according to which Iran would freeze its uranium enrichment efforts at the level of 60 percent purity in exchange for an easing of sanctions, including dropping the oil export embargo. 

Under Mr. Biden, enforcement of that embargo has been eased, though. Iran now exports an upward of 1.2 million oil barrels a day and therefore may be less enthusiastic than in the past for a deal easing ever-weakening sanctions.

“In its quest for nuclear diplomacy, the administration fails to take into account the ultra-hardline consolidation in Iran,” a Foundation for Defense of Democracies Iran watcher, Behnam Ben Taleblu, tells the Sun. In 2013, he notes, the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader spoke of “heroic flexibility” in facilitating the deal. Yet by now “Khamenei has taken that phrase back, and he continually devalues the importance of a deal for Iran.” 

The IAEA report’s shorthand will erode any effort at toughening American and global measures meant to slow Tehran’s rush to a bomb, and is expected to weaken their arguments in next week’s gathering of the IAEA board. No wonder Israeli leaders are concerned. 

The New York Sun

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