November 18, 2011

The IAEA's useless condemnation of Iran

The Economist magazine cover from May 4, 2006 seems to have been right on the money. Given the world reaction to the recent report by the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that Iran was in fact embarking on the development of nuclear warheads for its ballistic missiles, it would appear that Iran's nuclear ambitions are indeed unstoppable.

That possibility was highlighted at the Thursday (November 17) IAEA meeting in Vienna. The world's representatives to the agency met to determine the next moves following the release of the report on the Iranian program. Predictably, the agency was unable to come up with anything more meaningful than what the media has described as "sharp criticism" of Iran and drafting of a resolution.

The draft resolution contains words that will no doubt set back Iran's efforts (for those who do not know me, I am being sarcastic), expressing "deep and increasing concern about the unresolved issues" and "urges Iran to agree to new negotiations without preconditions." There is no mention of sanctions or penalties - a concession to Russia and China - and defers any further discussions on the program until March 2012. Meaningless.

Call me skeptical, but I don't see this resolution having any adverse impact whatsoever on Iran's nuclear program. In fact, the opposite is likely true. The Iranians have just been given a free pass for at least the next four months. In those four months, Iranian engineers and physicists will continue to enrich uranium far above levels required for the generation of nuclear energy, continue to research and develop ballistic missile warhead technology and continue to laugh at the impotence of the West.

Of course, that means laughing at the impotence of the Obama Administration whose "engagement" policy towards Iran has allowed Iran's program to continue virtually unabated for years. An Administration spokesman tried to spin this failure by saying, "We are confident that there’s going to be a strong message coming out of the board of governors, and a unified message." I am not convinced that a "strong and unified message" will have any effect on Iran other than affirming their perception - a correct perception in my opinion - that they have again gained time while again outmaneuvering the West.

Another Western spokesman, obviously using the Obama Administration's talking points, hailed the IAEA "strong and unified message" as "setting the stage for a possible showdown in the spring if IAEA investigators find that Iran is continuing to violate its nuclear treaty obligations." Is he serious? Does anyone with a modicum of thought processes believe that Iran is not going to continue its nuclear weapons development program in contravention of its treaty obligations?

Meanwhile, the Israelis continue to wrestle with the possibility - some would say probability - of the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran. I have been to Israel several times in the last few years. On a trip in 2006 in the aftermath of the war with Hizballah ostensibly to talk about that operation, in almost every instance my talks with Israeli political, military and intelligence officials focused on the "existential threat" posed by Tehran's quest for nuclear weapons.

Another trip in 2009 to ostensibly review the military operations in the Gaza Strip in late 2008 and early 2009 also focused on Iran's nuclear program. Israel was understandably disappointed with the results of Thursday's meeting which gives Iran a free hand to continue its weapons program with no consequences until the spring.

Since the Israelis have not been shy in sharing their analysis that while they can deter any or all of the Arab countries from launching an attack on the Jewish state but that the Islamic Republic of Iran cannot be deterred, the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities increases in direct proportion to the Western world's refusal to address the issue.

The IAEA's decision to "sharply criticize" Iran and impose no penalties led U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to caution Israel against taking military action against Iran, urging more time for diplomacy at this point. The interesting point of this advise to the Israelis is his use of "at this point." Are we to believe that if the Obama Administration continues to fail to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon then Israel will get a green light to do what no one else seems willing to do?

I had great hopes when the United Nations named Yukiya Amano as the new Director General of the IAEA, replacing Egyptian Muhammad al-Barada'i. I was encouraged when the IAEA released its report that Iran was - surprise, surprise - developing a nuclear warhead for its ballistic missiles.

I am now disappointed that nothing new appears to be on the horizon. Iran is developing nuclear weapons - we all know it, but no one is willing to do anything about it. There is no sense of urgency - it will be March before we as an international body hear of this again. The IAEA's condemnation, its "sharp criticism," is meaningless.