Middle East

Iran IAEA nuclear report deepens concerns

File picture of the reactor building at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran
Image caption Iran says its nuclear programme is designed entirely for peaceful purposes

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) writes four reports a year on Iran's nuclear programme.

The reports generally document - in dry, technical language - the amount of uranium that Iran has enriched, the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear programme, and the agency's frustration with Iran's lack of co-operation with its inspectors.

These reports tend to produce an intense wave of interest among Iran watchers and nuclear experts. But they do not make much news beyond those circles. However, the latest report has attracted much more attention.

For the first time, the IAEA gives a wide-ranging picture of research and development work in Iran that suggests military nuclear aims.

The report gives detailed information - some new - suggesting that Iran conducted computer modelling of a kind that would only be relevant to a nuclear weapon.

Analysts say it is increasingly unreasonable to continue to believe Iran has no nuclear military intentions.

'Fabricated evidence'

Image caption Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi calls the new IAEA report an advertising campaign

But Iran's government has a different view. In its opinion, a reasonable person believes that anything said or done by the West is part of a far-reaching plot to bring down Iran.

At a recent news conference, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi called the new IAEA report an advertising campaign. He said any evidence presented by the agency would be baseless and fabricated.

Iran insists its nuclear programme is designed entirely for peaceful purposes. But many believe that its recent actions undermine its protestations of innocence.

In June, Iran revealed it would move some of its uranium enrichment facilities to an underground bunker near the city of Qom.

It also announced it would triple the amount of medium-enriched uranium it intends to produce. That is potentially an important step towards the production of weapons-grade uranium.

Experts believe that, with further enrichment of its existing stockpile of uranium, Iran already has enough raw material to make two or three nuclear weapons. But having the raw material is different from having an actual weapon.

How long might it take for Iran to build a first bomb? One group of Western diplomats believes it may take up to three years. Others believe that Iran could go faster.

"I estimate that it would take at least a year - who knows exactly how long - if you assess how long it would take Iran to further enrich its growing stockpile of low-enriched uranium and then fashion it into a weapon. All the steps amount to at least a year, maybe more. But that's just for one weapon," says director of the non-proliferation and disarmament programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Mark Fitzpatrick.

'Know-how'

But no-one outside Iran's leadership knows whether or not the country wants to build an actual weapon.

Many experts believe Iran's rulers want to be in a position to know how to build a bomb, to have all the parts ready - but not necessarily to take the final step.

"I don't think a political decision has been taken in Tehran as yet about a timeline for saying 'we need this many weapons and we're going to develop them and deploy them'," says Wyn Bowen, professor of international security at King's College, London.

"I don't think that decision has been taken. But they are moving in that direction. The longer that Iran moves in that direction, the closer they will be to breaking out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which they signed up to as a non-nuclear weapons state."

'Sabre-rattling'

But one country in particular does not want to wait for Iran to move any further.

At the end of October, speculation began that Israel might decide to carry out a strike against Iran. Israel has attacked perceived nuclear threats in the Middle East before.

In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed an unfinished nuclear reactor at Osirak in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

But the Iran of 2011 presents a much harder target than the Iraq of 1981. Iran's nuclear facilities are scattered and buried across the country.

A single raid would not destroy the programme. Israel may not have the military strength to carry out an extended campaign by itself.

"In my judgement, the possibility of Israel engaging in such activity is almost zero. You hear this quite often. Israelis have been suggesting for several years that they confront an existential threat and are prepared to take military action," says Ray Takeyh, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"And so far no military action has come about. I suspect none will in this case. The Israelis hope that the conjunction of this report and Israeli sabre-rattling could actually provoke a tougher round of sanctions against Iran."

Since 2006, the United Nations Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions against Iran for its failure to disclose the true extent of its nuclear activities.

The tough IAEA report may propel the US and Britain in particular to seek further sanctions. But Russia and China may be more reluctant to agree.

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