Analysis: Raising eyebrows in Jerusalem

The IAEA chief's position that Iranian enrichment is a matter of time frustrates Israeli officials.

elbaradei, iaea 298 88ap (photo credit: AP [file])
elbaradei, iaea 298 88ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Even before Mohamed ElBaradei said in Luxembourg on Thursday that Iran was three to eight years away from nuclear weapons, Israeli officials - in private conversations - were expressing increasing frustration with the International Atomic Energy Agency head. That frustration stems from ElBaradei's position - clearly articulated earlier this month in a New York Times article - that it is just a matter of time before Iran masters the nuclear fuel cycle, and that sanctions won't stop it. "We believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich," ElBaradei told the Times. "From now on, it is simply a question of perfecting that knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that's a fact." Obviously these words, for those like Israel and the US who believe that a concerted international diplomatic effort can still stop Iran, were more than a little annoying. There was also a feeling Thursday, the day after the IAEA released its indictment of Iran for going ahead with uranium enrichment and for blocking access to IAEA inspectors, that much more could have been written, spelling out the precise steps the Iranians have taken over the last five months to keep the IAEA inspectors from essentially doing their job. There was a certain sense that ElBaradei was too easy on the Iranians in order to keep the report from leading directly to sanctions. A more detailed list of what the Iranians have done to avoid inspection would have led to greater international outrage, which could in turn have helped efforts to get another round of sanctions. ElBaradei's comments about Iran getting the bomb in three to eight years, therefore, must be seen within the context of his characterizing the Iranian bomb as a fait accompli, something the world should just start getting used to. The sense in Jerusalem is that these types of comments fall outside his purview. ElBaradei's job, as head of the UN's nuclear watchdog agency, is to make sure that his inspectors are able to do their jobs, not to make pronouncements with heavy political overtones. According to various Western assessments, ElBaradei is not interested in seeing an Iranian capitulation on this matter, but believes that the Iranians and the UN Security Council could meet halfway - with the Iranians getting some of what they want, and the Security Council getting some of what it wants. ElBaradei's actions up until now have not left the sense that he is petrified by the thought of a nuclear Iran, but rather that he is very concerned about a domino effect - that the nuclearization of Iran would lead to widespread proliferation in the region. His actions have not given a clear indication that he believes Iran would be an irresponsible nuclear state, or that nuclear arms in its possession would necessarily be a catastrophe for global peace and security. And ElBaradei is not the only diplomatic problem. There is growing concern in Jerusalem that of the six world powers leading diplomatic efforts with Iran - the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany - the last three tend to believe that at this point the best strategy is to reengage the Iranians in talks, in the hope that if the international community would just give in a little, the Iranians would come back to the negotiating table. Israel is concerned that a meeting between EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, planned for next Thursday is just aimed at getting the Iranians back to the table. The Prime Minister's Office issued a statement Wednesday night, after the most recent and damning IAEA report, that - in cryptic fashion - included criticism of this meeting. "Not only do initiatives that seek to anchor and reinforce the existing situation not contribute to resolving the crisis, they damage and harm the chances of success on the diplomatic track," the statement said. Rather than reinforcing the situation and holding meetings with the Iranians, Israel is lobbying the world to take the IAEA's most recent report, go directly back to the UN Security Council and implement a third round of sanctions - and the sooner, the better.