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.