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The Daily Need

Iran may be much closer to nuclear weapons than we thought. What happens next?

Iran has begun its own production of carbon fiber, a material under U.N. embargo because of its potential use in the country's nuclear program. Photo: AP Photo/ISNA, Abdolvahed Mirzazadeh

Is Iran closer to nuclear weapons than we think?

That’s the gist of a forthcoming report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to news reports. The Guardian, a British newspaper, wrote last week that the report from the international nuclear watchdog was expected to reveal new evidence that the Iranian nuclear weapons program was further along than previously thought. And this week, The Washington Post has added new details to those reports, alleging that Iran received assistance from foreign scientists and may have been hiding the money behind its rogue uranium enrichment program in civilian institutions.

Much remains unknown about the intelligence contained in the IAEA’s assessment, but the report is almost certain to add to the crisis atmosphere surrounding the issue of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, especially as it relates to Israel. Israelis, already unnerved by the political upheaval roiling the Arab world, have been furiously debating the possibility of a missile strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The Israeli public remains sharply divided over the wisdom of such an attack. But most Israelis seem to agree that a strike on Iran would plunge Israel into war with Hamas in Gaza and possibly Hezbollah in Lebanon, adding a lit match to the tinderbox that is the Middle East.

Why the report may be a ‘game-changer’

In recent years, Iran’s influence in the Arab world seemed to be dwindling. Iran “tends to thrive in an atmosphere of instability and chaos,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment, wrote in September. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Israeli wars in Lebanon and Gaza in 2006 and 2009, respectively, Iran seemed to be gaining power. The arrival of the Obama administration, the political upheaval in the Arab world and technological setbacks to Iran’s nuclear program, however, seemed to change that.

The Obama administration won new friends in the international community with several unprecedented changes to U.S. nuclear policy, making it harder for Iran to demonize the West and rouse of the passions of developing nations like Malaysia, South Africa and Singapore, among others. The warmer atmosphere resulted in an international agreement last year to work toward a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, and several former allies of Iran began to distance themselves from the regime. “Iran has been losing influence,” Deepti Choubey, a nuclear policy analyst, told Need to Know at the time.

The Arab Spring also seemed to marginalize Iran — specifically, by threatening the Assad regime in Syria, perhaps Iran’s only ally in the region. And Iran seemed to be having a much more difficult time developing the technology to harness enriched uranium. “Stuxnet,” a sophisticated computer worm believed to be developed by Israeli and American officials, wreaked havoc on Iran’s uranium enrichment program last year. Many experts believed the damage would set Iran’s nuclear program back by years.

What we know now

Apparently Iran wasn’t working alone. A National Intelligence Estimate issued under the Bush administration in 2007 alleged that Iran had actually halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 in response to domestic and international pressure. Officials also believed that Iran was having trouble mastering the highly specialized skills required to enrich weapons-grade fissile material and harness that material for a nuclear bomb.

Now, however, the IAEA apparently believes Iran never froze its nuclear program, and in fact had received crucial assistance from foreign scientists, including a Russian nuclear scientist named Vyacheslav Danilenko, who allegedly helped Iran build and test a device that would trigger the chain reaction necessary for a nuclear weapon. Scientists in North Korea and Pakistan — including the father of that country’s nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan — also helped Iran’s scientists by providing mathematical formulas and blueprints for crucial equipment.

The money used to fund these programs, which would normally have been subject to international sanctions and likely detected by international officials, was kept from public view, David Albright, a former U.S. weapons inspector, told the Washington Post: “After 2003, money was made available for research in areas that sure look like nuclear weapons work but were hidden within civilian institutions.”

What happens next?

Western officials are taking a cautious approach to the report. On the one hand, they say, the new intelligence will be damning, forcing even Iran’s allies, such as Russia and China, to acknowledge its significance. “This will be a game-changer in the Iranian nuclear dossier,” a Western official told the Guardian in its report. “It is going to be hard for even Moscow or Beijing to downplay its significance.”

However, the IAEA is also likely to be guarded in its assessment, so as not to provoke an immediate crisis. The agency might also have difficulty drawing conclusions about the status of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, since Iran’s nuclear facilities have been off limits to international inspectors. “The IAEA is unlikely to be able to make a definitive judgment as to exactly where the Iranians are along the road towards a bomb,” BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus wrote Monday.

What happens next depends in large part on how Israel and the U.S. react. On the one hand, the U.S. has reacted hesitantly to the reports, mostly because there seems to be little appetite among American officials for yet another military intervention in the Middle East. “A U.S. military attack on Iran is not going to happen during Obama’s presidency,” Sadjadpour, the Iran analyst, told the Guardian.

Israel, however, has been consumed with the possibility of an attack on Iran for months. Israelis are largely split on the question of whether to attack Iran. Some, such as Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad spy agency, have called an airstrike against Iran a “stupid idea.” Dagan said in June that he feared Israel’s leaders might make a rash decision and plunge Israel into war with Iran — an outcome the Iranian regime would welcome. An airstrike, Dagan said, “would mean regional war, and in that case you would have given Iran the best possible reason to continue the nuclear program.”

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