A 'Game Changer' in Iran?

Presented to the IAEA's board of governors in Vienna today, the report is not the "smoking gun" widely seen as necessary to trigger military strikes on Iran, but it is nonetheless being heralded in some quarters as a watershed moment in the standoff between Iran and the West.

"I do not think this report is likely to be a game changer", says Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council, referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) latest report on Iran's nuclear programme.

Presented to the IAEA's board of governors in Vienna today, the report is not the "smoking gun" widely seen as necessary to trigger military strikes on Iran, but it is nonetheless being heralded in some quarters as a watershed moment in the standoff between Iran and the West.

The report sets out information "from a wide variety of independent sources, including from a number of Member States, from the Agency's own efforts and from information provided by Iran itself". This information "indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device."

Whilst these activities took place under a structured programme prior to the end of 2003 the report concludes that "some activities may still be ongoing."

Whilst much of the report is historical and offers no actual evidence of a weaponisation programme, the western media has been filled with speculation that, with the help of a Russian scientist, Iran may now have the technical means to build a nuclear weapon.

Despite the fact that the report confirms the IAEA "continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities and LOFs declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement", and suggests that weaponisation studies have been downgraded since 2004 from building and testing components to largely computer modelling, the allegation that Iran may have computer models of a nuclear warhead has done little to allay fears.

But Ingram believes that report will only reinforce suspicions rather than change minds. "People's opinions are pretty fixed and everyone will read into it what they like" he argues. "For the US and Europeans it will confirm their suspicions that the nuclear programme is essentially a cover to develop a weapons capability. For the Israelis it will confirm their belief that the Iranians are playing a clever game that will inevitably lead to their possessing an arsenal. For the Russians and Chinese it will be inconclusive, lacking the killer facts that would force their hand into applying additional sanctions. And for the Iranians it will smack of conspiracy."

Indeed it is the inflexibility of these different viewpoints, combined with a lack of trust, that presents the greatest challenge to resolving the ongoing standoff with Iran.

On coming into office President Obama showed a willingness to engage in direct negotiations with Tehran without preconditions. In his broadcast to Iran he publicly acknowledged Iran's right to enrich uranium and in October 2009 he held direct talks with the Iranians in Geneva.

Commenting on these talks at the time the Financial Times noted that President Obama "got more out of Iran in eight hours than his predecessor's muscular posturing did in eight years". But Geneva was to prove a high-water mark in good US-Iranian relations. In the intervening years Iran has accelerated its enrichment activities and President Obama has long since withdrawn his "hand of friendship".

At the Geneva talks a proposed agreement devised by the US would have seen Iran exchange most of its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) for fuel rods from Russia and France. This "fuel-for-fuel" swap was largely accepted by President Ahmadinejad but he proposed that the IAEA assume control of the LEU in Iran until the fuel rods were delivered. The Americans rejected this proposal.

The following year Brazil and Turkey negotiated a deal with the Islamic Republic where the LEU would be taken to a neutral country. The deal was almost identical to one put forward by the US in Geneva but rather than welcoming it Washington responded with scepticism and imposed new sanctions on Iran.

This September, whilst attending the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, President Ahmadinejad hinted that he would be willing revive the fuel swap deal saying that Tehran would stop producing 20 percent enriched uranium if it was guaranteed fuel for a medical research reactor. Whether or not this was a serious offer or political brinkmanship we will never know since the offer was never followed up.

Last June following IAEA chief Yukiya Amano's statement that he had "received further information related to possible past or current undisclosed nuclear-related activities that seem to point to the existence of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program" Tehran announced that it would shift its production of higher grade uranium to an underground bunker and triple its production capacity.

In the meantime the US has reinforced its military force in the Gulf, carrying out large-scale naval maneuvers in the Atlantic with the British and French and allowing Israel to use NATO bases for exercises. NATO's missile defence system has been deployed across the region and reports suggest the US has shipped hundreds of 'bunker-buster' bombs to military bases on the island of Diego Garcia and supplied 55 of the bombs to Israel.

On Monday in response to the heightening tensions Sergei Lavrov and Yang Jiechi, the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers both expressed concern about any West military strike on the Islamic Republic Monday and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe warned of "irreparable damage" an attack would cause.

In Iran itself, the ratcheting up of tensions is having a negative impact on the beleaguered Green Movement. Since the 2009 elections the democratic issue had taken priority over the nuclear issue for many ordinary Iranians but there is nevertheless huge popular support for Iran's civil nuclear programme. Nuclear fuel production is regarded as a sovereign right and a source of great national pride and many Iranians believe that Western allegations of a weaponization programs are being used for political purposes.

"The current threat of a military attack on Iran is huge blow and set back to the cause of democracy in Iran" says Dr Nader Hashemi, assistant professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the University of Denver. "It strengthens the Iranian regime and makes the work of democracy and human rights activists more difficult." This week Dr Hashemi was one of many pro-democracy supporters to add his signature to a statement drafted by one of Iran's leading dissidents, Akbar Ganji, currently being circulated which strongly condemns military threats against Iran.

The Green Movement is in abeyance at the moment with its leaders Mehdi Karoubi, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Zahra Rahnavard under house arrest and leading activists and intellectuals imprisoned or forced to flee abroad. But discontent remains widespread and support on a societal level for democracy remains strong. "The Green Movement is waiting for another opportunity to reassert itself" says Hashemi. "This opportunity may arise during the March 2012 parliamentary elections."

Elections are also looming in America and with the US economy in disarray, Obama will not be keen to get involved in another bloody and unpopular war in the Middle East. However, he may well be coming under increasing pressure to take a harder line against Iran not just from Congress but from within his own party. Like the conservative Iranian leadership, neo-conservatives and policymakers in Washington are concerned by unprecedented rise of people power sweeping Middle East and the resulting loss of strategic influence. With US troops due to withdraw from Iraq at the end of the year, the State Department is deeply concerned about the possibility of Iran extending their sphere of influence there.

Assessing the state of Iran's nuclear enrichment program at a meeting in Parliament last year Saba Sadeq, head of the BBC's Persia service, argued that "both sides are exaggerating Iran's nuclear capacity for their own motives." Whilst few would accuse the IAEA's detailed technical report of exaggeration it nonetheless leaves many questions unanswered. Hawks will claim that it adds to the weight of suspicion that Iran is engaged in a weaponisation programmes. Doves will counter that no actual evidence has been produced to show Iran has diverted from its peaceful enrichment programme.

The report will be used to try and push through a fifth round of international sanctions and the opposing sides in the stalemate will move further from the negotiation table around which they ought to be sitting.

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