The International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) February report on Iran, the first under the agency's new director-general, Yukiya Amano, has created quite a stir. Upon its release, Reuters announced that the IAEA had, for the first time, "suggested Iran was actively pursuing [a] nuclear weapons capability, throwing independent weight behind similar Western suspicions." The New York Times echoed these sentiments: "Nuclear inspectors declared for the first time [that] they had extensive evidence of 'past or current undisclosed activities' to develop a nuclear warhead."
Almost every major media outlet repeated this conclusion, from CNN reporting that "it's the first time that the [IAEA] has issued such a strong warning about current Iranian nuclear activities" to the Washington Post claiming that "[the IAEA] publicly suggested for the first time . . . [Iran] is actively seeking to develop a weapons capability." The British Guardian's take: "[T]he U.N.'s nuclear watchdog raised concerns for the first time yesterday that Iran might be developing a nuclear warhead for a missile."
Yet the media has seriously misrepresented the actual contents of the report. In fact, no new information has been revealed. Such incorrect analysis shouldn't be taken lightly, however; it weighs in the balance between war and peace in the Middle East.
Commentators have latched on to these flawed conclusions to argue that military attack is the only option left to forestall an Iranian Bomb. Republican Cong. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan has insisted that the IAEA report is an "indictment" of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which claimed Iran had ceased its weapons work back in 2003. Indiana Republican Cong. Dan Coats told the conservative magazine Human Events that "the only option now is . . . military action." Even President Barack Obama is talking tough. With his deadline for reengagement with the Iranian regime passed, the State Department has pointed to the IAEA report to emphasize Tehran's noncompliance and to argue for tough new sanctions.
Perhaps sanctions or even military action might be appropriate at some point, but before resorting to either, it's vital to read the IAEA report and get the facts straight.
First, there is no independent assessment that Iran is engaged in weapons work, despite what the media has reported. The IAEA doesn't have its own intelligence capability. In fact, most of the agency's information comes either from what Tehran provides voluntarily, intelligence provided by member states, or on-site inspections of Iran's uranium enrichment sites. So the implication that the agency adds new and damning evidence to U.S. intelligence contradicting the National Intelligence Estimate is implausible. In any case, the IAEA says they have "no concrete proof" that Iran has ever had a nuclear weapons program, only that such charges are "broadly consistent and credible."
Next, this is hardly the first time that the agency has discussed potential evidence of Tehran's nuclear weapons research, a fact that media outlets have almost all failed to recognize. Past IAEA reports have always raised unresolved questions about the true nature of Iran's nuclear program. But whereas some included an explicit list of concerns, others simply referred back to previous reports for details.
More importantly, the report doesn't contain any evidence that the public hasn't already seen. For the most part, the 2010 report provides a summary of long-standing concerns: alleged research on the converging explosive compression of uranium, detonators with precise timing, and a possible nuclear reentry vehicle for Iran's Shahab-3 missile. These details (and more) were previously mentioned in an annex to the 2008 IAEA report. Although the new report does mention a document that purports to prove Iran considered building a neutron generator using explosively compressed uranium deuteride, the existence of the undated and unverified evidence was actually first revealed in the Times of London last December.
Unfortunately, no fresh news isn't the same as good news. Every IAEA report that reiterates the list of unresolved questions pertaining to the Iranian nuclear program is a setback for diplomacy, negotiation, and sanctions. And Iran isn't standing still. It continues to enrich uranium. Since producing bomb-grade uranium is the toughest challenge to making a nuclear weapon, no change means that Iran is making steady progress toward a bomb capability.
Nor do we want to sound like apologists for Iran. The regime seems to positively savor making it as difficult as possible to give it the benefit of the doubt. Alleged weapon research has no innocent justification and, if real, would make a damning case against the regime. That said, an already dangerous standoff is being made worse by the distortion of this recent IAEA report. It's important that a decision to abandon negotiations and move to crippling sanctions or military attacks be based on solid facts of wrongdoing. If there was a case for sanctions or military strike before, the report adds nothing new.