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Nuke Estimate May Buy Diplomacy More Time

13 Jan 2011 17:59Comments
Michael-Adler.jpg[ Q&A ] w/ Michael Adler, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He formerly covered the International Atomic Energy Agency for Agence France-Presse.

What does the new estimate by Israel's retiring Mossad chief Meir Dagan -- that Iran won't have a weapon before 2015 -- do to the diplomatic effort?

It reinforces it. Diplomacy needs time and and gets time if Iran is stalled in its nuclear program, as is apparently the case.

How does his assessment differ from other recent estimates?

Not that much. Moshe Yaalon, Israel's strategic affairs minister, had said on Israeli public radio in December that "the Iranian nuclear program has a number of technological challenges and difficulties," putting it up to three years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon. This places the crunch time at 2014. And Dagan had said in June 2009 that "unless their program experiences technical problems, the Iranians will have by 2014 a bomb ready to be used."

Brigardier General Yossi Baidatz, an Israeli military intelligence official, had said in November 2009 that Iran would have a nuclear weapon by 2010.

How does his statement affect the urgency of a diplomatic deal?

Western diplomats say it does not reduce the urgent need for a deal, but they admit that it could slow things down. Some compare it to the US National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 which said Iran had stopped weaponization work in 2003 towards making an atomic bomb. This came just as the United States and European powers were trying to convince Russia and especially China to join in tougher sanctions. The NIE report deflated that effort.

It is not clear however if the new Israeli estimate will have the same effect. US officials have themselves been saying that Iran's nuclear program has suffered serious hitches and that this gives diplomacy a chance. They have stressed that such a window in a confrontation that risks becoming a shooting war should be taken advantage of -- urgently.

Is it likely to put off speculation about an Israeli military strike in the next year?

Definitely. It reinforces the U.S. point of view that Iran's domestic political strife and its nuclear problems give diplomacy an unexpected chance.

Does Iran's announcement that it has increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium change assessments by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog?

No. The IAEA is still seeking to verify whether Iran's nuclear program is peaceful or designed to make nuclear weapons. Iran has been steadily increasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium since 2006. The IAEA investigation dates from 2003.

What is Tehran trying to do by inviting China, Russia and friendly European countries to tour its nuclear sites before the next round of diplomatic talks between Iran and the world's six major powers due to be held in Istanbul on January 20-21?

Iran, which insists that its nuclear work is a peaceful effort to generate electricity, says it wants to show that its program is a strictly civilian project. Western diplomats decry the invitation, however, as a show to stall diplomacy by distracting attention from Iran's continued violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. These resolutions call on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and comply fully with the IAEA investigation of the Iranian nuclear program.

How is that a deviation from the U.N. protocol of inspecting nuclear sites?

It is not a deviation. Various delegations, especially from non-aligned countries, have toured Iranian nuclear facilities in the past. The bottom line, however, is that the IAEA has inspectors at Iranian nuclear sites, and they are the ones who monitor Iran's activities. Their conclusions are available for all to see in reports issued regularly by the IAEA. The last report, on November 23, 2010, said: "While the agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran, Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities."

The "Author Talk" series is presented by Tehran Bureau, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

related reading | Primer: Iran and the IAEA | Muhammad Sahimi's 'Nuclear Dossier'

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