Israel Says U.N.’s Nuclear Watchdog Is Withholding Evidence on Iran Nukes

By Patrick Goodenough | August 20, 2009 | 4:49 AM EDT

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei addresses a U.N. panel discussion in New York on October 24, 2008. (UN Photo by Paulo Filgueiras)

( – The annual meeting of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog next month is shaping up to be a dramatic affair:  Israel is expected to press the agency’s outgoing chief to come clean on Iran, and Iran is seeking support for an initiative to prohibit armed attacks on nuclear facilities, a measure clearly designed with a preemptive Israeli strike in mind.
On September 14, the International Atomic Energy Agency will open a five-day general convention in Vienna, the last before IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei leaves his post in December.
The gathering allows the 150 member states to deliberate on issues brought before it by ElBaradei, the 35-nation board of governors, and individual governments. The board of governors also holds sessions on either side of the convention, meeting on Sept. 7-11, and again on Sept. 22.
The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported Wednesday that Israel and other Western governments believe ElBaradei, an Egyptian who has held the post for 12 years, is holding back sensitive evidence obtained by an IAEA team in Iran regarding Iran’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons.
Citing unnamed Israeli officials and Western diplomats, the report said senior IAEA staffers in Vienna had deliberately excluded from reports a classified annex signed by the head of the IAEA’s Iran team.
The paper said the U.S. and the trio of European Union countries involved in the marathon negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programs – Britain, Germany and France – were putting pressure on ElBaradei to include the information in his report to next month’s general convention.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Wednesday urged the IAEA to “immediately release all evidence of Iran’s nuclear activities.”
Citing the Ha’aretz report, the conservative Florida lawmaker said it appeared that the “increasingly politicized IAEA may be concealing evidence.”
In his regular reports on the Iran dossier, ElBaradei has mentioned efforts by Iran at times to conceal information and to deny access to some nuclear facilities but without drawing any conclusion that this indicates an attempt to develop nuclear weapons.
The latest IAEA safeguards statement on Iran said a number of outstanding issues remained to be clarified “since they give rise to concern about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.”
Those issues included the involvement of military-related institutes in research and development activities “that could be nuclear related,” and defense industries’ production of nuclear equipment and components, the report said.
However, “Iran has not provided substantive information or access to relevant documentation, locations or individuals that would have allowed the Agency to make progress on these issues.”
Break-out capacity
Iran says its nuclear program, which it hid from the international community for nearly two decades before an opposition group exposed it in 2002, is designed solely for peaceful energy-generation purposes. The U.S. and its allies believe it has nuclear weapons ambitions.
Depending on the level achieved, uranium enrichment can produce fuel for either power plants or atomic bombs. A country possessing a certain amount of low-enriched uranium (LEU) could, if it wished, enrich it further to obtain sufficient fissile material for a bomb in a relatively short time, a process known as “break-out.”
The Institute for Science and International Security estimates that, should the leadership take the political decision to develop a nuclear weapon, Iran is months away from break-out capacity – that is, to having the amount of LEU required to give it “a good chance of success to produce enough weapon-grade uranium to fashion a crude nuclear weapon, small enough to fit on a ballistic missile.”
There is no consensus, however, and other estimates put the time considerably further back. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told the Senate last February that “Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame.”
Experts at the Arms Control Association have cautioned that the focus on the material which Iran is known to possess could overshadow the more critical issue of Iranian activities that may be taking place in secret.
ElBaradei told the BBC in June that it was his “gut feeling” that Iran wants to have the technology “that would enable it to have nuclear weapons if they decided to do so.”
Iran has not held talks on the nuclear issue with the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany since July 2008.
Six months after offering Tehran an open hand in return for an “unclenched fist,” the Obama administration has now given it until next month to accept an international offer of direct talks in return for a freeze on uranium enrichment. If the offer is not taken up, Washington plans to discuss next steps at a G20 summit of industrialized and developing nations in Pittsburgh on Sept. 24-25, just days after the IAEA convention ends.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned of possible sanctions, but Tehran, which has already defied three sets of sanctions, has rejected the September deadline.
Prohibiting armed attacks
Israel, the target of Iranian enmity long before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began threatening to wipe the Jewish state from the map, has hinted that it may carry out a pre-emptive strike on the Iranian facilities. Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, and in 2007 attacked a suspect Syrian facility.
Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told state television on Tuesday that Tehran wants the agency to ban military strikes against nuclear facilities anywhere in the world. He had sent a letter to the IAEA calling for such an initiative to be approved at next month’s convention.
Soltanieh earlier said the move was not related to an Israeli threat – “we are not worried about Israel … nobody dares to do anything against Iran” – but was instead “a matter of principle.”
The IAEA has, in fact, passed resolutions in the past on the matter: one adopted in 1983 declared that “all armed attacks against nuclear installations devoted to peaceful
purposes should be explicitly prohibited.”
Another, in 1990, prohibited “all armed attacks against nuclear installations devoted to peaceful purposes whether under construction or in operation.”
A 1977 protocol to the 1949 Geneva Convention includes “nuclear electrical generating stations” under a category of facilities that should not be targeted for attack “if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces and consequent sever losses among the civilian population.”
All of these measures refer to facilities used for peaceful purposes.
In a letter to ElBaradei this week, the Simon Wiesenthal Center asked the IAEA chief whether the new Iranian proposal should be understood as covering “nuclear installations devoted to non-peaceful purposes.”
Dr. Shimon Samuels, the Jewish human rights group’s director for international relations, urged the IAEA to reject the Iranian resolution “as an exercise in hypocrisy.”
Instead, it should expose “Iran’s aggressive nuclear objectives,” he wrote.
In a statement read out at the last meeting of the IAEA’s board of governors, in June, Soltanieh complained that “after six years of the most robust and intrusive inspection in the history of the agency,” and despite repeated declarations by ElBaradei that there was no evidence of prohibited nuclear activity by Iran, the issue remained on the IAEA agenda.
He blamed the situation on “political motivation and pressures exerted by a couple of countries with a hidden agenda.”
Soltanieh reiterated Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy.
“The world has noticed that the Iranian people, with the background of thousand years of civilization and contribution of science to humankind, are united on [the] issue of nuclear energy,” he said.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow