Politics and paranoia complicate IAEA’S work on Iran, Syria

February 27, 2009

The U.N. nuclear non-proliferation watchdog assiduously guards its impartiality as it monitors and investigates disputed activity in Iran and Syria, with suspicious Western powers impatient for the inspectors to draw conclusions.

So the International Atomic Energy Agency typically puts what have become keenly anticipated, quarterly reports on Iran and Syria through many painstaking drafts before they see the light of day, to help ensure that not a single word can be misunderstood, misinterpreted or turned to political advantage.

But the IAEA had to scramble this month to stay the course amid growing Western edginess over Iran’s defiant advances towards nuclear capacity with possible bomb applications, as well as a perceived Syrian nuclear cover-up.

The U.N. watchdog had to do battle with politically charged headlines and alarmist commentary both because of unexplained references in its latest reports and things that were left out.

Unguarded remarks coaxed from senior U.N. officials by aggressive nuclear beat reporters also stirred the pot. First, we pounced on a figure of 1,010 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) accumulated by Iran for future nuclear fuel. Our antennae were twitching since this echoed U.S. estimates of the minimum LEU Iran would need to reprocess into high-enriched uranium (HEU) for a bomb, if it so chose.

Yet, the science is inexact. Other estimates range up to 1,700 kg, depending on factors like quality of uranium, natural loss or wastage of material from further enrichment and so on.

Such nuances got lost in U.S. and European headlines:

“IRAN HAS ENRICHED ENOUGH URANIUM FOR BOMB, IAEA SAYS”.

In fact, the IAEA had not said that. It was just an unnamed U.N. official who, pressed by reporters to draw conclusions, said: “Do they have enough LEU to produce a significant quantity of HEU? Yes. But it is theoretical. They’re not there yet.”

Still, that looked to some as if the IAEA was passing judgment on a nation’s nuclear capability. Iran protested because that is outside the IAEA’s technical mandate, which to safeguard nuclear items from diversion into bombmaking.

His “yes” whipped up fear in a West convinced Iran is bent on building The Bomb, despite a dearth of hard evidence. In fact, for the security hedge Iran desires to turn the tables on U.S.-Israeli predominance in the Middle East, all it needs is a perceived ABILITY to build a nuclear weapon.

That is entirely legal since uranium enrichment technology also generates electricity, the stated goal of Iran’s programme.

Since enrichment is the toughest of a good dozen technical steps entailed in creating a bomb, Western concerns now fixate on the size of Iran’s LEU stockpile. And that figured in a second ruckus arising from the IAEA’s report.

Eagle-eyed U.S. nuclear reporters, comparing figures with those in the IAEA’s prior report, found that Iran’s estimate of its LEU stockpile was 209 kg less than the IAEA’s own inventory check. Answering a question, a U.N. official said this “physical inventory verification” (PIV) was done just once a year.

Headlines blared: “IRAN UNDERSTATES URANIUM STOCKS”. Alarm bells rang: could Iran be misleading the IAEA about its LEU stocks and squirrelling some away for secret conversion into HEU?

The IAEA was taken aback, wrongfooted by its failure to acknowledge and explain the unusually large discrepancy in the report, and it took three days to issue a clarifying statement. No, it said, this was only an honest mistake by Iran down to technical inexperience and Iran is cooperating well to improve its future estimates. The IAEA assured that all LEU was under constant agency surveillance. Not everyone was convinced.

“(Since a PIV) is conducted once a year…, given the time taken to process the results, it means a diversion occurring just after a PIV might not be detected for 13 or 14 months,” wrote James Acton in the influential Arms Control Wonk web blog.

Fellow ACW blogger Jeffrey Lewis saw no reason for fuss. “Another IAEA report on Iran. Cue the panic…This is going to frighten you, but large industrial processes are not measured in bomb units, even though this would be awesome,” he wrote. Alluding to the LEU, Lewis added: “If you aren’t sure how much he weighs, Elvis is still in the building.”

As for Syria, a rare impromptu disclosure of investigative findings omitted from the IAEA’s formal report created a media splash and a protest from Damascus, which denies allegations it tried to build a plutonium-producing reactor in secret.

Answering a reporter’s query, a U.N. official said graphite traces were found in soil samples taken at a site where Washington says Syria almost built a graphite-core reactor with North Korean help before Israel bombed it to ruin in 2007.

Some reporters including me led their stories with the graphite, understandably because this was news. We also quoted the U.N. official saying it was to early to tell if there was a nuclear link with the graphite, an element with many other uses.

But that qualifier escaped many punters. The IAEA was forced to send a memo to its 35-nation governing board a day later spelling out that no graphite-nuclear link had been established
“at present”.

For its part, Syria’s state news agency said no suspicious graphite had been or would be found. Syrian officials denied any graphite was found, suggesting the IAEA was lying.

But as the last week made clear, politics, paranoia and conspiracy theories can sometimes make it hard to get the whole truth across when it comes to the IAEA’s complex Iran and Syria investigations.

(Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (C) visits the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, 350 km (217 miles) south of Tehran, April 8, 2008. Iran has begun installing 6,000 new centrifuges at its uranium enrichment plant, Ahmadinejad said on Tuesday, defying the West which fears Tehran is trying to build nuclear bombs. Picture taken on April 8, 2008. REUTERS/Presidential official website/Handout (IRAN). FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.)

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