It's September, and the world is scheduled to pay a lot of attention to Iran this month. Good idea, considering that according to a report released last Friday by the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based think tank concentrating on nuclear issues, Iran will have the wherewithal to produce two nuclear bombs by February 2010, if it so decides. The ISIS report was coauthored by David Albright, a former International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear inspector, in response to the IAEA's quarterly report on Iran issued earlier that day. According to Albright, by last February Iran had accumulated enough low-enriched uranium (LEU) to be able to enrich ample weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon. At its current rate of progress, it would accumulate enough LEU to use as feed for the production of sufficient weapons-grade uranium for two nuclear weapons by the end of February 2010. That is if it wants to. That decision has not yet been made, and it is precisely how to convince the Iranians not to make that decision that many leaders will be pondering at a series of high-level meetings throughout the month. The IAEA report got the ball rolling. But trying to make sense out of its significance was dizzying for the following reasons:
Privately Israel said the report was helpful because it made clear Iran was still concealing whether it had a nuclear weapons program.
Publicly the government issued a carefully worded statement, coordinated with the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, blasting the IAEA for hiding more on the Iranian weapons program than it was revealing.
Iran praised the report as positive.
So what was this IAEA report - positive or negative? Did it help or hinder efforts to stop Iran's nuclear march.
THE REPORT, technical enough to confound the laymen, did - according to those watching the issue carefully - support the argument that Iran has looked into ways to make an atomic bomb. It did not, however, provide proof that some say the organization itself is sitting on.
Which explains Israel's hot and cold response.
"Whenever these reports come out," said one government source, "the question you ask yourself is whether it strengthens or weakens the case for sanctions against Iran. I think this last report strengthens the case for stronger measures. Even though it doesn't go as far as we would have liked on the military aspects of their program, it doesn't cover the issue up."
For instance, in a section entitled "Possible Military Dimensions," the report reads, "There remain a number of outstanding issues which give rise to concerns, and which need to be clarified to exclude the existence of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program." Granted, that is not exactly earth-shattering stuff for those convinced that Iran is hell-bent on procuring nuclear arms, but in the understated world of nuclear diplomacy, this is - well - somewhat of an indictment.
Or, as the Israeli government source put it, "The report provides a firm basis for continued actions against Iran. It keeps weaponization fairly front and center; it keeps in the mind of the countries that should be interested that there still continues to be a reason to suspect Iran's ultimate intentions." In other words, he said, "the report adds another brick in the case against Teheran."
Then why the sharp tone to Israel's official response?
"This report is one of the last reports submitted by the outgoing director-general, Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, and it is notable for the findings omitted from it," the Foreign Ministry said Saturday night in its response to the statement. "It is a harsh report, and yet it does not reflect all the information known to the IAEA regarding Iran's efforts to continue to pursue its military program, its ongoing attempts at concealment and deception, and its lack of cooperation with the IAEA and the demands of the international community."
In other words, Israel believes that ElBaradei - who was quoted this week as saying that the Iranian nuclear threat was "hyped" - and the IAEA are sitting on much more explosive information that could go a long way toward tipping the scales against Iran in the international community.
"They know much more on the military aspect of the program than they are revealing," the source said. "And the more that is known about the military program, the more difficult it will be for some countries to oppose sanctions. Historically we have seen that the world has been willing to take steps only when it is convinced that there is a weapons component to the program."
The official said it was untenable that the IAEA would withhold information at such a critical juncture on the world's calendar: the US, France, Russia, China, Britain and Germany (G5 + 1) met in Frankfurt to discuss Iran on Wednesday, the IAEA is having a board meeting on September 14, and this will be followed by a meeting of the G20 in Pittsburgh on September 24, during which the issue will be a focus. In addition, Iran's nuclear dossier will be a top priority at the UN General Assembly meeting in at the end of the month, and at a Security Council meeting on nuclear proliferation.
In short, there are a lot of key meetings this month at which Iran will be the focus, and the information about Teheran's nuclear weapons program - from Israel's standpoint - is vital.
"This is critical information that should play into decision-making in major capitals, as well as minor ones who have representatives on the Security Council," the government official said. "Not every country has the ability to verify this information itself and get independent information, and many rely almost exclusively on what the IAEA reports."
As to why Iran welcomed the report this week as "positive," Israeli officials said this was just so much posturing and smoke blowing. There are two patterns of behavior that the international community can count on from the Iranians regarding the nuclear dossier. The first is that they will immediately praise IAEA reports upon their release, to create the impression they are cooperating with the nuclear watchdog organization. And the second is a declaration of willingness to discuss nuclear matters just before some major meeting on the issue.
And, indeed, just before the G5 + 1 meeting, Iran declared a readiness to sit and talk. Its hope is that this would be enough to reduce the international heat. And one of Israel's key diplomatic goals throughout the month will be to ensure that this simply does not happen.