The US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear programs (NIE)[i] should decisively rob Washington hawks of any credible rationale for attacking Iran. What the NIE did not do, however, is explain or expose the surfeit of nuclear ambiguities that remain in Iran and that could be widely replicated in the event of the global surge in nuclear power development, dubbed the nuclear renaissance, that some are predicting.

More remarkable than the conclusion that Iran ended its nuclear weapons program four years ago is the NIE's judgment that "Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so." That's not an insight that depends on a global spy network; in fact, the most interesting thing about it is what the NIE left out - namely, that the same conclusion must be reached about a large and growing number of other states.

That is a genuinely worrisome reality because none of those potential nuclear states will be prevented from pursuing nuclear weapons by international efforts to deny them the requisite knowledge, which is what President Bush still keeps describing as the objective with regard to Iran.[ii] In fact, the only way to keep a broad swath of industrializing states from exercising a nuclear weapons option is to build an international security environment that persuades each of them to consistently make the political calculation that their national interests are best advanced by foregoing nuclear weapons.

Creating that kind of nuclear unfriendly environment requires at least two key elements. First, it needs a strict set of non-proliferation rules supported by a reliable system for monitoring national compliance and which imposes an unacceptably high price on any state that violates non-proliferation rules. Second, it requires a global political climate that is both responsive to the security needs of particular states and regions and rejects nuclear weapons as instruments of either prestige or strategic influence - evidence of the latter would be some serious action by the current nuclear weapon states to finally meet their disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Anyone who has observed nuclear disarmament diplomacy in general, and the UN Conference on Disarmament in particular, knows how far we currently are from fulfilling the second requirement. But the NIE report highlights the first requirement, for clear and enforceable non-proliferation rules, with another rather obvious point about Iran that has a much broader application. If Iran were to decide to produce weapons-usable highly enriched uranium, says the report, it "probably would use covert facilities, rather than its declared nuclear sites." In other words, as Iran's extensive clandestine activities prior to 2003 also demonstrate, a reliable inspections regime capable of unearthing secret operations will be essential to meeting the coming challenges.

Building such a regime is the immediate responsibility of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Its last report on Iran[iii] notes some genuine progress in clearing up questions about Iran's pre 2003 clandestine activity, but it still renders the unequivocal judgment that, given Iran's gingerly cooperation, "the Agency is not in a position to provide credible assurances about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran." The IAEA is in a position to confirm that all of Iran's declared activity, including uranium enrichment, is accounted for and not being diverted for weapons purposes, but preventing clandestine programs, in Iran or any of other country with relevant technical capabilities is another matter.

That means that the real Iran problem is not its declared and inspected uranium enrichment program, rather it is that, "since early 2006, the [IAEA] has not received the type of information that Iran had previously been providing, pursuant to the Additional Protocol and as a transparency measure. As a result, the Agency's knowledge about Iran's current nuclear programme is diminishing." This is therefore not the time for the international community, including the UN Security Council, to ease the pressure on Iran,[iv] but the ongoing pressure needs to be focused directly on overall transparency, not on monitored enrichment.

The international community cannot yet be confident that Iran is and will be a reliable custodian of nuclear technology, so the number one task now is to give the IAEA the political, legal, and technical resources needed to render confident judgments about Iran and all other nascent nuclear states.

As the NIE notes, one key resource is the Additional Protocol, special provisions that states are encouraged to add to their IAEA safeguards agreements to facilitate more intrusive inspections. It should be compulsory, as Canada and other states have been arguing for some time,[v] and the Security Council should make it an immediate requirement for Iran.[vi]

Not only is confidence in the lawfulness of Iran's programs at stake, but so too is confidence that the predicted nuclear renaissance will not overwhelm international monitoring capacity.

The focus on transparency and inspections, however, should not be taken to imply indifference to Iran's enrichment of uranium. Currently Iran is in early and still experimental stages of producing reactor grade fuel, but the technology it is refining is also capable of producing weapons grade material. The international community, therefore, has an obvious and urgent interest in restricting national enrichment programs and other weapons sensitive elements of the nuclear fuel cycle. But such restrictions will not be achieved through an Iran only policy. Selective non-proliferation strategies are inappropriate in principle and do not work in practice.

The objective must be, and is already under thorough study at the IAEA and elsewhere, an international regime that takes the weapons sensitive elements of the nuclear fuel cycle out of the hands of individual states and puts them under international control. That is ultimately the only way to ensure that any civilian nuclear renaissance does not proliferate the technology for building nuclear weapons.


[i] "Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities," National Intelligence Estimate, National Intelligence Council, November 2007 (http://www.dni.gov/press_releases/20071203_release.pdf).

[ii]In response to the NIE report on Iran, Mr. Bush told a press conference: "Look, Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." Whitehous transcript, December 4, 2007 (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/12/20071204-4.html).

[iii]"Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006) and 1747 (2007) in the Islamic Republic of Iran," IAEA, Report by the Director General, November 15, 2007,GOV/2007/58 (http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2007/gov2007-58.pdf).

[iv]IAEA INFCIRC/711, August 27, 2007 which describes the agreement between Iran and the IAEA for a program of work to address and resolve the all outstanding issues between them and thus outlines "the Modalities of Resolution of the Outstanding Issues" (http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Infcircs/2007/infcirc711.pdf).

[v]For example, Canada urged the 2005 NPT Review Conference tomake "theAdditional Protocol, together with a comprehensive safeguards agreement, the verification standard pursuant to Article III.1" for fulfilling "the obligations of that section of the Treaty." Canadian statement to the 2004 NPT PrepCom on "Implementation of the Provisions of the Treaty Relating to the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Safeguards and Nuclear Weapon Free Zones Issues" (http://www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/arms/2004nptcluster2-en.asp).

[vi] UN Security Council Resolution 1737 (2006) "calls upon Iran to ratify promptly the Additional Protocal," but does not demand it in the same way that it demands that Iran suspend proliferation sensitive nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment. (http://daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N06/681/42/PDF/N0668142.pdf?OpenElement)

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.