Nukes: Iran Flunks in IAEA Report

Do Iran's leaders want to be punished? Do they want China and Russia to fall in with the United States, France, Britain and Germany to impose tougher sanctions? Do they want to see the leaders of the Arab world united against them? Do they want to mix it up with Israel and the United States? Of course Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his gang don't say that, but the juvenile games they're playing with the international community make them look more like dangerous delinquents every day.

The report on Iran's nuclear program released by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency on Thursday afternoon offers the most recent case in point. If it were a report card, it would give three grades, and two of them would be F's. As for what used to be called comportment? Most unsatisfactory.

Here's the breakdown and background:

Nuclear History 101: Iran gets a passing grade, but barely. In late August, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei agreed with Ali Larijani, who was then Iran's top negotiator, on a "work plan" to try to cool off the increasingly tense confrontation between Tehran and the international community. The aim was to resolve critical questions about a part of Iran's nuclear program that it had kept secret for at least 15 years, from 1987 to 2002, while using designs and equipment facilitated by "the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb," the infamous AQ Khan. Were the Iranians making a bomb, too? That was the real question. But in the face of flat denials, the details of the program had to be picked apart.

(Remember, Iran insists its nuclear program was always entirely peaceful. But remember, too, that when the secret program began, the Iranian regime was in the midst of its long, savage, no-holds-barred war with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who had already used chemical weapons against Iranian troops and was well on his way to developing his own atomic weapons.)

Repeated IAEA inspections since 2003 have turned up traces of nuclear fuel and important isotopes in places the Iranians couldn't or wouldn't explain. There were indications some of the equipment used for enriching uranium might have gone to the Iranian military. It wasn't clear where all the equipment and designs came from, or how they were used. A suspicious document was found that seemed closely related to the manufacture of nuclear bombs.

The work plan agreed with Larijani in August was "a litmus test," ElBaradei told NEWSWEEK the following month. If the Iranians did not "come clean" about their once-secret program, then there wasn't going to be much that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate ElBaradei or anyone else could do to help. "If Iran were to prove that it was using this period for delaying tactics and it was not really acting in good faith, then, obviously, nobody—nobody—will come to its support when people call for more sanctions or for punitive measures," ElBaradei said in the interview. "That is a point that has been made very clear to them by everybody, including myself. If we come [back] with a negative report after three months [i.e., in November] I don't see that anybody will come and say, well, give them another chance."

In the event, on the specific points raised in the work plan, the Iranians resolved some issues to the IAEA's satisfaction but left almost as many unresolved, while responses to still other points are not expected for several weeks. "Come clean"? Not quite.

Nuclear Enrichment 101: Iran gets an F. The basic demand of the international community, both the board of the IAEA and the U.N. Security Council, is that Iran suspend its current nuclear-enrichment activities, which could give it enough raw material to make atomic weapons by the end of the decade. This Iran flatly refuses to do, claiming it has the right to make nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes like any other signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Unfortunately for that argument, unlike any other signatory of the NPT, it already has been declared in material breach of its treaty obligations for hiding so much of its nuclear activity for so long.

Remedial Treaty Reading: Another F. Precisely in order to restore some confidence in the international community after its secret nuclear program was exposed in detail by the IAEA in 2003, Tehran agreed to implement an additional protocol of the NPT that allowed inspections at a much wider variety of sites and with less prior notice than the original treaty. In January 2006, however, Iran quit cooperating at that level, and has declined to observe the protocol ever since. Nuclear-weapons expert David Albright at the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington has described the IAEA's ability to track developments in Iran as "fading to black" without the protocol.

Comportment: Unsatisfactory, or worse. Iranian President Ahmadinejad's blunt threats against Israel, his support of Hizbullah in Lebanon and radical Shiite militias in Iraq, and the growing tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia have helped heighten the image of Iran's leaders as fanatical, provocative and too dangerous to tolerate. As if intentionally hoping to make that impression worse, Ahmadinejad recently replaced the urbane and reasonable-seeming nuclear negotiator Larijani with his own relatively untried but truly doctrinaire protégé, Saeed Jalili.

The standard of behavior demanded by the international community is not all that high, in fact. The eccentric and often dangerous Libyan dictator Muammar Kaddafi won his way back into the good graces of the West, even of the United States, when he gave up trying to hide his nuclear program in 2003 and decided to turn over not only all the equipment and blueprints but the names, addresses and other pertinent information about his black-market suppliers. That's what "coming clean" means, and the rewards are great. By contrast, earlier that same year, Saddam Hussein only very reluctantly and at the point of a gun allowed U.N. inspectors to search for weapons of mass destruction anywhere they wanted in his country at just about any time. His scientists and officials answered questions put to them, we now know, pretty truthfully, but also very reluctantly. Nobody in Baghdad was volunteering anything, so nobody could be positive they weren't hiding something.

The difference between the two cases, in nuclear-inspection jargon, is that Libya decided to be "proactive" while Iraq was "reactive." In the report (or report card) issued today, the IAEA said flatly that Iran is in the "reactive" category. That is, like Saddam, which is one reason many in the Bush administration would like to see the Iranian leaders handled much the same way the Iraqi regime was.