IAEA’s 8 November report: A bunch of stuff we’ve known for years

Nukes ahoy.

The latest report from IAEA on the inspection regime for Iran’s nuclear program has landed with something of a thud.  Fifteen of the report’s 25 pages are devoted to an annex outlining “Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Programme,” which is the language by which IAEA has long referred to the possibility of nuclear weapons development by Iran.  But as Allahpundit and others have observed, we, um, knew all this.

And, really, we did.  The intelligence from what IAEA calls the “alleged studies,” which makes up the bulk of the discussion in the latest report, was known to IAEA in 2005, and to Western intelligence agencies, including US national intelligence, earlier than that.  To be clear:  US intelligence made the assessments in the infamous 2007 NIE in the full knowledge of the information in the “alleged studies.”  The information pertained to activities prior to early 2004.  And it still forms the basis of IAEA’s new assessment.  Every substantive point in the report has been known to the public for at least two years; most of it for even longer.  Some of the details are new.

(For those who don’t follow this closely, the “alleged studies” are intelligence reports on the Iranian nuclear program forwarded to IAEA by UN member states, including the US, in early 2005.  The convention in IAEA documents is to refer to them as the “alleged studies,” which avoids conveying an official opinion on their accuracy or veracity.)

IAEA refers, for example, to the possibility that the Parchin weapons development facility, on the southeast edge of Tehran, is being used for nuclear-related high-explosive testing, a likelihood which US intelligence suspected prior to September 2004.  IAEA was allowed to inspect a portion of the Parchin facility in 2005, but was not given access to all the areas requested (including the area implicated below), and has not performed an inspection since.

The 8 November report alludes to information suggesting Iranian work on a multipoint initiation system for detonating a nuclear warhead (see section C.6 of the Annex, “Initiation of high explosives and associated experiments”).  Yes; that intelligence (along with IAEA’s knowledge of it) was reported two years ago by the UK Guardian’s Julian Borger, who provides a helpful link to his original piece in an article published Monday.  As Borger notes, IAEA referred obliquely to the same intelligence as early as May 2008, which would be three and a half years ago now.  The Iranian experiment itself, according to the foreign intelligence referenced by IAEA, occurred in 2003 (see paragraph 43 on page 9 of the Annex).

The “new” data point getting the most media attention is the report’s discussion of imagery of the Parchin facility showing a “bus-sized steel container” assembled there, possibly for high-explosive testing.  As indicated at the WaPo piece linked above, analysts at ISIS (Institute for Science and International Security) could not immediately corroborate that finding to the Post.  But however recent its detection, the container cannot be said to be new. According to paragraph 49 on page 10 of the Annex, the container was constructed, and a building erected around it, in 2000.

By itself, this development doesn’t come close to proving that Iran has a nuclear weapons program.  If you were disposed to ignore (or explain away) the pile of other evidence outlined in the 8 November Annex, you would be justified in ignoring this too.  A bus-sized steel container could be a number of things.  It’s not a tie-breaker.

If, on the other hand, you have been taking the previous evidence seriously all along – the accumulated data points from 2003 to 2011, most of which have been known to the public for at least two years, and some for more than six – you would be justified in regarding the steel container as additional evidence.  It would bolster your case, but it is neither decisive nor a sudden pretext for urgency.

There is a bemused skepticism being evinced about the timing of this particular IAEA report – and the media hype surrounding it – at many blogs where military strikes on Iran are generally opposed.  I appreciate their skeptical perspective. What IAEA has done in this report is showcase, in a newly pessimistic analytical context, a lot of data points we have known about for years.  Why now?

It is an interesting study in, well, something, to compare some very recent headlines in the Washington Post coverage of the Iranian nuclear program.  As recently as 17 October, WaPo characterized the program in these terms:

Iran’s nuclear program suffering new setbacks, diplomats and experts say

The language of the story started out dolorous and went downhill from there (all emphases added):

Iran’s nuclear program, which stumbled badly after a reported cyberattack last year, appears beset by poorly performing equipment, shortages of parts and other woes as global sanctions exert a mounting toll, Western diplomats and nuclear experts say.

That was 23 days ago.  In the last few days, the headlines have changed.  See 5 November:

IAEA says foreign expertise has brought Iran to threshold of nuclear capability

Intelligence provided to U.N. nuclear officials shows that Iran’s government has mastered the critical steps needed to build a nuclear weapon, receiving assistance from foreign scientists to overcome key technical hurdles, according to Western diplomats and nuclear experts briefed on the findings.

And 7 November:

IAEA warns of improved Iran nuclear program capability; Israel strike speculation builds

The urgent-sounding word “threshold” shows up in a lot of the MSM reporting from the past 48 hours (e.g., National Public Radio, CBS, New York Times, Agence France Presse), although the IAEA report doesn’t actually say Iran is on the threshold of anything.  (The word “threshold” doesn’t appear in the document.)

And in another change of thematic stance, some MSM outlets (see above for examples) are even suggesting that, contrary to the theme flogged earlier by WaPo and the Obama administration, the UN sanctions have not been working very well.

The character of the Iran nuclear problem is not something that can change significantly in less than a month based on the identification of a bus-sized steel container constructed during the Clinton administration.  A parsable case cannot be built that suddenly, Iran’s program has been catapulted from a largely theoretical and/or dilapidated state to Full Speed Ahead: Next Stop Alamogordo.  The sober truth appears to lie somewhere in between: there’s extensive evidence – and there has been all along – that “Alamogordo” is the objective.  But Iran’s progress toward it, while steady in some areas, is halting or difficult to discern in others.

I have heard from several readers who express skepticism about the apparent drum-beating campaign of the last week, which has featured reports of Benjamin Netanyahu seeking strike approval from the Israeli cabinet; disclosures about IAF military exercises and a Jericho missile launch; multiple leaks about US officials apparently being traumatized by the fear of an unannounced Israeli strike on Iran; a leak from the British defense ministry that it thinks the US is accelerating preparations for a strike on Iran; and now the wildly hyped IAEA report – which could have been assembled, to an 85-90% level of fidelity, by making abstracts from all the previous IAEA reports, changing some emphases in the analysis, and adding some results from modeling.

The skepticism is appropriate, I think.  No concrete development justifies the implication being built up in the media of “threshold-arrival,” or of a new finality to the intelligence.

The possibility that Israel might be taking advantage of a newly critical IAEA posture toward Iran, even though none of the information is new or game-changing, has a level of interest to it.  I don’t regard that as likely, however, because in 2011, Israel can’t gain enough from a preemptive strike – a strike conducted while it’s still a discretionary option – to make the consequences of it worthwhile.

That hasn’t always been the case, but it is now.  Conditions in the problem set in Iran have changed, dating back to late 2008-early 2009: the target list has expanded, and the critical bottleneck in the program – the most important set of facilities and capabilities to interdict – has shifted from the uranium enrichment network to the weapons development network.  The latter is more geographically dispersed, less clearly identified, and generally more co-located with dense population areas (mainly in Tehran and its suburbs).

There’s another facet of the overall issue that has changed in a way the public’s expectations haven’t caught up with.  It’s reflected in the outdated theme being flogged in the media about US officials fearing that an Israeli strike will be executed without prior warning.

This isn’t 1981, and the Iranian nuclear program isn’t Saddam’s; it really isn’t even possible for Israel to repeat the 1981 operation, in the terms suggested by the media leaks from “US officials,” and with the implications evoked by them.  The US will know what’s happening within moments of any such strike attempt being launched.  Indeed, we’ll know something is afoot before it happens.  The scope of American presence, intelligence, and planning in the Middle East today is immensely greater than it was in 1981.  And we work too closely with Israel now, on a daily basis, to be unaware that something on the level of a strike against Iran is being prepared for – even if we’re not explicitly informed of it.  If Israel conducts such a strike, it will be with our prior recognition, whether we and Israel agree there was a formal notification or not.

There cannot be a pragmatic, on-the-ground concern that we “won’t know about” an Israeli strike in advance.  We have known for too many years that such a strike is possible to be wholly unprepared for it as a contingency.  Of course we don’t want to be faced with its regional consequences, but there is no good reason to emphasize that point in public forums.  The main purpose for flogging this theme to the media seems to be keeping the possibility of it alive in the minds of a less-informed public.

Pundits speculated last week that the media onslaught was designed to channel foreign governments toward tightened sanctions on Iran, as the only viable alternative to the implied threat of a military attack.  (The Russians promptly interpreted it that way.)  Pursuing the endless, speculative permutations of this possibility would bog us down forever.  But this interpretation does seem more likely than the possibility that any of Israel, the US, or a combination of the US and the UK is planning to attack Iran in the near future – while issuing no serious, pointed diplomatic warnings to Iran, but instead making a lot of tantalizing, ambiguous noise about it to the press.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

25 thoughts on “IAEA’s 8 November report: A bunch of stuff we’ve known for years”

  1. Please forgive me for my following comment: The Iran Nuclear conversation is very similar to the Mideast Peace conversation. On and on and on. Time after time after time after time.
    Folks, do it or shut up and get off the pot. If we can’t really do anything. Shut up and live with it.
    It is worse than re-runs of Miami Vice.

  2. OptiCon writes: “A bus-sized steel container could be a number of things, ”

    Sure: When Obama does his post-2012 election victory tour of the mid-East (“This time it’s a personal jihad, baby!”), maybe Ahmadinejad wants to have an armored bus that Barry can ride around Tehran, throwing the Green Party protesters under the bus.

  3. the reason the report was released at this time is because it was ready. It had been signalled for weeks.

    The Israelis (Who actually have a renegade nuclear arsenal) have been “talking up” a raid on Iran knowing the report was about to be released. They are rather disappointed with the report in that it doesn’t back up their claims that an Iranian nuclear deterrent is imminent. The purpose of the recent Israeli media activity is that they are: 1. feeling the temperature of the water, so to speak, as to what support they might have for such a raid (answer: none), 2. To threaten unilateral Israeli action unless the US does the job. The logic of this is that the Israelis know that an Israeli raid might have more dire consequences for US interests in the region than if the US itself attacked Iran (The Saudi response is the crucial issue here. The reaction in Shia Iraq to an Israeli raid is another dangerous unknown). They also prefer US service personnel rather than their own to be put in harms way in securing Israeli objectives.

    I think it unlikely that Obama will be more inclined to be bounced into action by the Israelis than Shrub was (Or for that matter any President who is sane enough to be elected, and that includes Romneycare in spite of his recent pronouncements). I would presume that Iran has dispersed its partially enriched feedstock and its most crucial components to hardened underground bunkers. Moreover, any attack on the civilian nuclear infrastructure would inevitably lead to Russian casualties, with unforseen consequences. Much of this infrastructure is close by heavily populated areas, and any raid that might hope to significantly set back the Iranian race for a bomb risks widespread civilian casualties and all that entails for what remains of the morsal reputation of our country (Remember, the so-called precision bombing in “shock and awe” resulted in thousands of civilian deaths). In any case, no-one believes anything short of invasion and occupation would garrantee a halt to the Iranian bomb-programme.

    And the Iranians will get their bomb. Probably next year or the year after. That’s pretty much inevitable. The only real consequences will be to render Iran un-invadeable and the Israeli nuclear arsenal unusable for fear of nuclear retaliation. So what if the Israeli investment in weapons of mass destruction has been for nought?

    The mullahs who really control Iran are quite sane, and you can see their point in acquiring these weapons if it puts an end to the constant threats of attack and invasion. You must remember that we imposed the Shah upon them. The Shah was one of the true monsters of the 20th century, and far far worse a despot and torturer than the present regime. And of course there is not an Iranian family that was left uneffected by the terrible war started by our then client, Saddam. (A war in which Saddam used poison gas against Iranians and Marsh Shias without as much as a peep of protest from the then US government). Since then Iran has been under constant threat from the US and Israel.

    In any case, when nuclear armageddon comes to the Israelis – as it surely will if the situation in the Mid-east continues to deteriorate and the fundamentalists on both sides get their precious wish for a war between civilizations – Pakistan is a far more likely origin for the weapon or weapons. Unlike Iran, Pakistan is a failing state full of truely insane people.

    1. Regurgitation Complete. Please Flush. Please Wash Your Hands Before Returning To your Connection With The Blob.
      Next Download 21:00 Greenwich Mean Time. Please Make Sure Your Mindless Acceptance Switch Is In The On Position. If You Have An Independent Thought, Please Re-Boot.
      Trout For Lunch.

      1. Yeah, he probably gets paid by the word by some phony front organization funded by The Kapo Soros… TOC is probably an assignment that he monitors.

        And his last post has to be one of his most repugnant.. at least what I read… since it was so nauseating that I had difficulty keeping track of it.

        arbeit macht frei – eh Paulite?

        Never again, dood. Never freaking again.

    2. Yes, but Israel’s nuclear Arsenal doesn’t violate any treaty (similarly to India’s and Pakistan’s)and is a stabilizing factor most conducive to peace and stability in the Middle East. Indeed it is regarded as such by most regional players within which are any elements with any interest in preserving such to an extent. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for instance, have felt no need to develop a counter arsenal.

      An Iranian Arsenal would be (is quickly being) acquired in blatant violation of voluntarily assumed treaty obligations, would at the very least be used to shield and support their extensive terrorist activities and would be a most dramatically destabilizing factor that would almost ineluctably induce the same Saudis and Egyptians to build nukes of their own.

      Remember Paulite, hundreds of nuclear bombs and accompanying delivery systems don’t kill people. Radical Islamist imperialists kill people.

      1. I am afraid you comment is too well written, concise and factual.You are going to insult the Blob.
        I hope you don’t know anyone that currently lives in Axelrods’ building.

  4. O/T: Hokies hunting foot in the second half. Suddenly, they’re lousy? Suddenly the Yellowjackets can run all over them?

    Of course, there’s nothing sudden about the Hokies committing suicide by penalty and turnover.

  5. OK, the Logan Thomas touchdown was cool. He kind of just strolled through a big pile-up and sauntered into the end zone.

    Hokies having another sudden reversal. GT tacklers really need to work on their form. Wilson keeps getting another 10 yards off of them, with at least one and sometimes two Yellowjackets attaching themselves to him like barnacles.

  6. 37 – 26 final… Nice little hook and squat route to the tight end Chris Drager for the stretch TD, and then a nice clean defensive stop.. with a drive and a wicked decision to add 3 to the 34-26 score… Frank made the tough call, got the 3, made it a 3 point game with too few minutes on the clock for the Wrecks to do much of much…

    Hokies knock GT out of the ACC race. UNC isn’t a threat, but next Thursday, down in Blacksburg… Win there will be tonic, and then a trip to Scott Stadium for a tough one against the Hoos for the Family Feud game.. Virginia has decided to be an actual football team this season, so it will be a tough fight.

    Destiny is still in Hokie hands…

    A Clemson rematch in Charlotte? Well we shall see… one game at a time please.


  7. The Left loves to defend Iran and will twist itself into a pretzel explaining why Iran has every right to get the bomb. Hey, Israel has the bomb, why can’t Iran get one??

    We should unashamedly declare that if you’re a democracy, you can have the bomb. If you’re not a democracy, you can’t have one. If the commie dictatorships, mullah hell holes and mafia states don’t like it – tough.

    1. Why should “democracy” legitimize the possession of nuclear weapons? Freely elected leaders of nations have done some pretty reprehensible things, some of which have resulted in the deaths of many thousands. Furthermore, today’s democracy has the potential to be tomorrow’s dictatorship, be it in the form of a single tyrant or the tyranny of many.
      No sensible person wishes to see an ayatollah yearning for the appearance of the Mahdi with his finger on the trigger of the nuclear shotgun, especially when he’s playing poker with other people’s money. There were never a lot of options in this confrontation.and the number is being reduced to two.

      1. chuck, Freely elected leaders *have* done some reprehensible things. However, freely elected leaders are much less likely to use such weapons. And everyone knows full well that a democracy is highly unlikely to use nukes except *possibly* under extraordinary circumstances. Or perhaps in an effort to ultimately *save* lives (Hiroshima/Nagasaki). It is odd, isn’t it, that Saudi Arabia (for example) has no fear of the Israeli bomb but is terrified of an Iranian bomb?

        Since we can’t snap our fingers and eliminate nuclear weapons, the next best thing is to limit who has them to those countries that are quite likely to use them only as a “just-in-case” last resort tpye scenario. Countries that may well use them as a “first” resort (i.e. Iran) should not be permitted to have them. Nor should countries that would use “nuclear blackmail” as a cover to perpetrate terrorist activities be permitted to have the bomb (i.e. Iran again).

        Personally, I’d be thrilled if the US were the only country to have nukes. And if it takes a full scale military attack to prevent Iran from getting them, I’m all for it. I’d be inclined to include the mullahs on the “target list” in any such attack that is to also take out the Iranian nuke program. The consequences may well be high, but I think the consequences ofthe mullahs with the bomb are ultimately higher.

        1. So far there’s only been two nuclear weapons put into use and they were detonated on the orders of a democratically elected leader. That fact is recognized all over the world. The reality is that we should be more concerned about the whereabouts, capability and security of the remains of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, which was, and probably remains, operational.

          1. Quite true. But I still believe that the Pakistani arsenal is a far more likely source of a terrorist weapon. Iran has always conducted its foreign policy in a coldly sane manner. Iran is also a nation in the proper sense of the word, and its rulers are nationalists. They are well aware of the temporal consequences to Iran if they attacked Israel with a weapon of mass destruction – or if a weapon used in such an attack were traced back to Iran. Suicide is not really a Shia thing. The Iranians rather like their creature comforts. Pakistan, on the other hand, is a seething and unstable patchwork of tribes, sects, and ethnicities. They don’t really see the bigger picture. They have short and miserable lives. They don’t really do temporal consequences. They die and go to Heaven, and everyone else goes to the other place. Period.

    2. RE, the left doesn’t defend Iran, they’re just reluctant to fight Iran.

      —-We should unashamedly declare that if you’re a democracy, you can have the bomb. If you’re not a democracy, you can’t have one—-

      that wouldn’t be democratic.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: