Iran, Nuclear Weapons, and the IAEA

By: 
Daniel Brumberg

This week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is scheduled to release a report on the status of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. USIP’s Dan Brumberg discusses the possible impact of the report.

November 7, 2011

This week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is scheduled to release a report on the status of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. USIP’s Dan Brumberg discusses the possible impact of the report.

What is the report expected to say?

The report will focus, in part, on intelligence provided to the IAEA concerning a former Soviet nuclear scientist -- Vyacheslav Danilenko -- who apparently provided Iran with some of the key technical information needed to build the high precision detonators required for triggering a nuclear chain reaction. It was generally assumed by U.S. intelligence that Iranian efforts to advance "weaponization" had stopped in 2003. But if these new reports are credible, it appears that their efforts may have never ceased, and indeed accelerated in the last few years. The central concern of the international community is that this program may be bringing Iran to the critical threshold of a nuclear capability, by which we mean the capacity to assemble and deliver a nuclear weapon in short order. 

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How will a confirmation of Iran’s increased research into nuclear weapons affect regional stability?

The IAEA report comes on the heels of a leak from Jerusalem that suggested that the Israeli government may be preparing a nuclear strike on Iran. Jerusalem may invoke the report to press the U.S. and its allies to take a much more aggressive stand, a demand that could serve as a prelude to an Israeli attack. As Israel ratchets up the pressure, Iran's allies in Lebanon -- Hezbollah -- may feel tempted to stir up trouble along the border, thus signaling Jerusalem the potential cost of such an attack for its own security. After all, Hezbollah now has rockets that can reach far south, by some reports even Tel Aviv.

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What options does the international community have to address violations?

In point of fact, the U.S. and its allies do not have a lot of good options. As we noted in the USIP-Stimson Center report issued a year ago this October, the most seasoned experts --including some who were part of the USIP-Stimson Study Group -- not only doubt that Israel has the capacity to launch an effective air strike on Iran, but that the U.S. itself is not well positioned to do so. The main point of the report is that the costs of such an attack could far exceed the potential benefits. And so we are left with increasing international sanctions on Iran, something the administration clearly prefers over the use of military force, on the one side, or a declared policy of containment on the other.

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Will more sanctions produce the desired result?

Sanctions are clearly hurting the Iranian economy. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself admitted as much publicly last week. But the problem is that by themselves, even more "punishing sanctions," are unlikely to force Iran into compliance. Sanctions work if you have a strategic concept that links sanctions to a clear set of incentives. But the administration has had a difficult time mustering domestic political support for a more comprehensive policy that links the two tracks. Moreover, political struggles within Iran's top leadership have undercut any voices within or linked to the regime that might respond favorably to such a policy of "strategic engagement." And so we are left with depending on sanctions not as part of a wider diplomatic mechanism, but rather as a policy for maintaining domestic (and global) policy consensus on Iran.

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What work is USIP doing on Iran?

USIP is supporting analytical work focusing on offering U.S. policy makers a more nuanced understanding of the evolution of Iran's political system and the implications of this dynamic for Iran's foreign policies in the region and globally. We also continue to provide some support for track two diplomacy efforts. We are also hosting a public event on Iran's electoral system on November 18.

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November 7, 2011
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