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The IAEA Tree That Fell and No One Heard

By Steve Schippert | December 8, 2005

A recent statement by IAEA head Mohammed ElBaredai is getting very little attention and it warrants much, much more. While his statements were briefly discussed in RapidRecon, they warrant closer inspection. ElBaradei, in a remark in a private interview with the UK Independent newspaper, stated that Iran is two to three years away from a nuclear weapon in his estimation.

Although IAEA officials have said it would take at least two years for Natanz to become fully operational, Mr ElBaradei believes that once the facility is up and running, the Iranians could be "a few months" away from a nuclear weapon.

The article is titled UN chief urges West and Iran to cool brinkmanship over nuclear programme. Offering up the shortest known ‘authoritative’ estimate on an Iranian nuclear timeline is how the head of the IAEA chooses to ‘cool brinkmanship’?

In the RapidRecon entry, I was attempting to calm many who were following the lead of some media sources who were selectively quoting just the ‘a few months’ quote without the additional two-year readiness context. But now it seems the conversation (or lack thereof) has turned to the other extreme: nearly cold silence. Almost lost seems to be that the head of the world’s foremost nuclear watchdog, the UN’s IAEA, still did submit a shockingly (considering the source) short timeline.

This is at great odds with other widely publicized and debated timelines, most notably the National Intelligence Estimate that stated that Iran was likely 10 or more years out from developing a nuclear weapon, and others proffering that Iran is at least five years away.

A major U.S. intelligence review has projected that Iran is about a decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon, roughly doubling the previous estimate of five years, according to government sources with firsthand knowledge of the new analysis.

The carefully hedged assessments, which represent consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, contrast with forceful public statements by the White House. Administration officials have asserted, but have not offered proof, that Tehran is moving determinedly toward a nuclear arsenal. The new estimate could provide more time for diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

That ElBaradei’s assessment, potentially one-fifth that of the NIE, seems to have fallen on deaf ears should be more than a little troubling. Many should be asking precisely where this game-changing assessment was when the five to ten-year estimates were being publicly debated. An estimate of a potential two-year window significantly changes the dynamic and sense of urgency regarding the Iranian Nuclear Crisis.

At the same time, in an interview with London’s Al-Hayat newspaper, ElBaradei suggested that the clock is ticking on Iran, and not in its favor.

"This window (for finding a solution) is not present forever. The international community has begun to lose its patience with Iran," he said.

"The international community is fearful of Iran acquiring the process of enriching uranium, because if a state obtains the ability to enrich uranium it is not far from the capability to produce nuclear weapons," he added.

At times, it certainly seems as if the clock has been ticking forever. And, even in the face of a referral to the UNSC for “non-compliance” with the NPT, it seems to tick on indefinitely with yet another round coming up.

In the latest round of talks (or ‘talks about having talks’), on the table is Russian enrichment for Iranian reactors in an attempt to wrest the most sensitive leg of the nuclear fuel cycle from Iranian control.

But Iran, still today and since the beginning of all nuclear talks, has insisted that Iranian enrichment (the last step to weapons-usable uranium) is non-negotiable and decidedly not on the table. Yet, it is Iran who asked back in November that the talks be re-opened, only to stipulate once again that enrichment is non-negotiable.

So why would Iran ask for negotiations precisely on an issue that is non-negotiable?

Time. Precious time. And they know that the world will go to the table, no matter the situation.

Why does the EU and the US (et al) continue to go back to the table? Because they do not want war and hope against hope that something, anything will come from the talks.

But the urgency of the situation is drastically different when the head of the IAEA offers up the shortest timeline yet on a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran. That this important assessment only came out as part of a private interview and not in a press conference directly addressing the same is troubling.


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A recent statement by IAEA head Mohammed ElBaredai is getting very little attention and it warrants much, much more. [Read More]


I think that your look at this issue brings to mind what I think of as the two faces of the IAEA: one face is the highly professional and competent technical staff, and the other is the highly feckless, easily intimidateable political leadership that heads it. We know much of what we know because their staff does a good job; the problem is the people running the place.

Another problem with El Baredei is moral equivalence: he often complains, in private interviews that are invariably leaked, that the United States is part of the problem because its possession of nuclear weapons and research into developing new ones ("tactical nukes") undermines the IAEA. That he cannot see - and openly acknowledge - a clear difference between the leader of the free world and the world's leading terrorist sponsor is indicative of any security system based on collective security. El Baredei himself isn't the problem so much as the bureacratic culture of the UN and related institutions (like the IAEA).

As to the time estimates, I would note that Pakistan's Ahamd Q. Khan was visiting Iran and helping them jump-start their nuclear weapons program back in 1986. Now, Pakistan began its program in 1976 I believe, and they succeeded at some point in 1990s (some point before the 1999 test). Iran has much more in the way of resources, and they have gotten significant help from South Africa from what I've read (see Al Ventor's book, Iran's Nuclear Option), but has also been under closer scrutiny. I don't know exactly how those factors play out, but that could be a guage. I don't mean this as an offense to the Pakistanis, but Pakistan is a country with a $400 per capita GDP. If Pakistan can develop nuclear weapons, anyone can.

The ElBaredei statement sure does deserve more of a place in the conversation about this issue so far. The problem is that no one knows which estimate is correct. Ten years would require cool brinksmanship- the shorter period seems to call for something much more vigorous.