Atomic Dreams

With new evidence that Iran’s nuclear weapons program is gaining steam, the Islamic Republic is once again in the world’s crosshairs.

The International Atomic Energy Agency's newest report on Iran's nuclear program, a document that has been quietly under preparation for several months, brings forth evidence that the Islamic Republic has covered a lot of technical ground to develop a nuclear weapon over the past two decades. But it stops short of the most incendiary charge: that Iran's political leadership masterminded a secret program to possess atomic arms. In view of the wealth of incriminating detail that the IAEA presented in the report, that omission may be the only face-saving argument left to Tehran to permit diplomacy to continue as usual. And because the report draws no conclusions about how far along Iran's nuclear weapons capabilities are, it will be irrelevant to Israel's calculus of whether to attack Iranian nuclear installations.

Since 2008, Iran has described allegations that it is working on nuclear weapons as based on falsified intelligence, similar to the kind that led the United States in 2002 to mislead the IAEA and the world that Iraq had resumed its defunct nuclear weapons program. Then Secretary of State Colin Powell's 2003 presentation of that "evidence" to the U.N. Security Council proved to be a watershed event, sowing mistrust at the IAEA under future Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei for years. Until ElBaradei was succeeded as director-general by Yukiya Amano in 2009, Iran could rely on the IAEA to not bring forth alarming data based on its member states' "national technical means."

In the meantime, however, the IAEA accumulated a thick dossier pointing to dedicated Iranian investigation of critical technical areas related to nuclear arms development -- neutron initiation, detonation, high-explosives testing, nuclear test preparation, modeling, specific physics research, work on re-entry of a ballistic missile payload. The IAEA became increasingly confident that the information was genuine. With the 2002 flare-up between the United States and the IAEA over Iraq keenly etched in their memory, the authors of the report prefaced their findings by explaining that, to the greatest extent possible, the records were multisourced and robustly vetted.

With Amano at the helm, the IAEA has been firmer in spelling out that it will pursue allegations of a "possible military dimension" to Iran's nuclear program, which remained largely buried under ElBaradei. Much of the data in this week's document detail allegations that Amano has already brought forth, in abbreviated form, in previous quarterly reports to the IAEA's governing board over the last two years. But belying Iran's claim that specific activities were carried out for civilian reasons, the IAEA report asserts that some activities appear only to be justified by work on nuclear explosives and that Iran's military has been deeply involved dating back to 1989.

The 1989 date may not be coincidental. In a 2004 meeting in Tehran between ElBaradei and Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the president described his intense emotional reaction to seeing Iranian front-line soldiers killed by poison-gas attacks during Iran's 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, during which he held a senior military role. Rafsanjani's 1989-1997 presidency saw the rise to prominence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has spread its influence across Iran's civilian society.

For half a decade, IAEA officials asked themselves whether Rafsanjani's experience on the Iran-Iraq front might have crystallized into a political decision by Iran's leaders to develop a secret nuclear capability that -- as in the case of Israel -- would ensure that the Islamic Republic would never again be hostage to a traumatic national security threat.

That is a question the IAEA report doesn't address. It never mentions the IRGC or any of Iran's leaders. Indeed, it never assigns any political responsibility for decisions that, over two decades, established a close relationship between Iranian military and scientific organizations that carried out experiments, research, and secret procurement activities in support of what looks like a nuclear weapons program. The IAEA report tells us that these activities have been going on, but it doesn't tell us who ordered them.

Without full cooperation from Iran, the IAEA might never find that out. In 1991, about six months after IAEA inspectors began questioning Iraqi nuclear scientists about the existence of a hidden nuclear weapons program after the end of the first Gulf War, the IAEA's leading inspector in the field wrote a note back to Vienna headquarters. He reported that he had talked to many Iraqi R&D scientists working on nuclear activities, but that none would disclose who was in charge of the whole program. It took several years of intense digging -- only made possible by the carte blanche that international monitors had following the Gulf War -- to find links between Iraq's leadership and the scientists doing the nuclear weapons work. In Iran, however, the IAEA and the United Nations don't have that mandate, and they're not likely to under the current regime in Tehran.

Recent media reports have claimed that Israeli leaders are now considering an attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure to put an end to Iran's march toward nuclear weapons -- and hawks favoring "regime change" in Iran may take the report as a go-ahead. But the immense risks such an effort would entail should convince them to think twice. And the IAEA report should certainly not be considered a casus belli.

Although the report documents that Iran is engaged in nuclear weapons-related development on many fronts, it does not say anything about Iran's prospects for success or how close to a nuclear bomb it might be. Answering these questions is not the IAEA's job, and the agency likely does not know the answers in any case.

During the first half of this year, Western IAEA board members urged Amano to adopt a road map to address serious long-standing compliance problems in three countries: Syria, North Korea, and Iran. When the IAEA learned that Syria had secretly built a nuclear reactor and had then failed to cooperate with an agency investigation, the board of governors in June cited Syria for noncompliance and brought the matter to the U.N. Security Council. Russia and China blocked any sanctions on Syria, but the board's citation of Syria permitted the IAEA to refocus its attention on Iran.

As with Syria, the board now has compelling testimony from the IAEA secretariat that Iran should be called to order. If the board agrees to a noncompliance resolution at its next meeting on Nov. 18, the Security Council could agree to still tougher sanctions against Iran, but this road may be blocked, again, by China and Russia.

So once again, the immediate result of an IAEA report to the board on Iran might be a paralyzing lack of consensus on the Security Council. Both Syria and Iran will remain truculent. But there is a crucial difference: While there is no acute concern that Syria's nuclear program is active, the stopwatch for Iran's mastering of atomic-arms capability will keep ticking.

The IAEA's reporting on Iran's nuclear weapons-related activities was not motivated by realpolitik but by a desire to keep the world's attention focused on a nuclear program that the IAEA, after nearly a decade of investigation, cannot certify is just for peaceful use. In revealing this dossier, the IAEA served the international community -- but it also made the outlook for a negotiated solution to the Iran crisis less likely.



Asia's Free-Riders

The U.S. turn to the East makes sense. But tacitly telling its allies in Asia that it's going to foot the bill for their security is foolish and unsustainable.

It's on the record. President Barack Obama's administration wants to pivot U.S. foreign policy away from the Middle East and toward East Asia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent Foreign Policy article exemplified this thinking. "The future of the United States is intimately intertwined with the future of the Asia-Pacific," Clinton wrote, touting Washington's "irreplaceable role in the Pacific."

The desire to focus on the Asia-Pacific is sound, but the administration's policies there are not. The impulse to reassure America's Asian allies that the U.S. commitment to their security is rock solid perversely makes it likely that they will continue to free-ride on America's exertions -- in an era when Washington has less and less money to spend.

Both Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, during their tenures as U.S. defense secretaries, have traveled to Europe to hector allies there for not spending enough on their militaries. This is not a new phenomenon in Europe -- even during the Cold War, America's European partners were only supporting actors in the drama between Washington and Moscow. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the disparity has grown worse: Only four of the 27 non-U.S. NATO militaries spend the agreed-upon 2 percent of GDP on defense.

The reason these NATO allies have shirked on their defense commitments is because they are smart. They know that if they fail to provide for their own defense, Uncle Sam will do it for them. This has allowed the Europeans to spend their resources on a variety of goods other than defense, from expansive welfare states to impressive infrastructure programs. U.S. taxpayers -- and now their creditors -- are left footing the bill for Europe's defense.

As far back as the 1960s, U.S. policymakers puzzled over the low levels of defense spending among the European members of NATO. In a 1966 article, economists Mancur Olson Jr. and Richard Zeckhauser showed that in the provision of collective goods (like security) in organizations (like alliances), the largest members will tend to bear a "disproportionately large share of the common burden." When a group declares something a common interest, it is rational for the poorer members to shirk and allow the wealthier members to carry a disproportionate portion of the load.

What happened in Europe is now happening in Asia. Countries in the region have expressed considerable anxiety about China's growing power -- and have stirred diplomatic waters in response. In September, in the wake of Chinese provocations in the South China Sea, the leaders of the Philippines and Japan issued a joint statement marking a new "Strategic Partnership" and expressing "common strategic interests" such as "ensuring the safety of sea lines of communication." More recently, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared that Japan's security environment had grown "increasingly murky due to China's stepped-up activities in local waters and its rapid military expansion."

These diplomatic developments are welcome, but the problem is that the most critical U.S. allies in the region are not paying their share of the bill. Japan spends a paltry 1 percent of its GDP on defense, and South Korea spends less than 3 percent, despite its much closer proximity to both China and North Korea. Taiwan, which faces one of the worst threat environments on Earth, also spends less than 3 percent of its GDP on defense. Absent the assumption of U.S. protection, these countries would be doing much more for themselves.

Instead, the United States, with the benefit of geographic isolation and a massive nuclear arsenal, spends nearly 5 percent of its national income on its military. Unless one believes that robust economic growth, sizable cuts in Medicare and Social Security, or large tax increases are right around the corner, the country's fiscal dilemma -- and with it, pressure to cut military spending -- will only continue to grow.

Washington policymakers in both parties seem to think that reassuring America's Asian allies is the best way to defend U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific. But instead of seeking to assuage their partners' anxiety, America ought to sow doubt about its commitment to their security. Only then will they be forced to take up their share of the burden of hedging against Chinese expansionism. Otherwise, U.S. defense secretaries may soon be complaining that their Asian partners, like the Europeans before them, won't get off the dole.

Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Charles Oki/U.S. Navy via Getty Images