When the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sent its follow-up report on the implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Safeguards Agreement in Iran to the United Nations Security Council on May 26, the response from the U.S. media was pretty much along predictable lines.
The next day, The New York Times, under a headline that read "Atomic Monitor Signals Concern Over Iran's Work," called it an "unusually blunt and detailed report" and quoted the report as saying that Iran's alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon remained "a matter of serious concern." The report "accused the Iranians of a willful lack of cooperation, particularly in answering allegations that its nuclear program may be intended more for military use than for energy generation." The case that Iran may be seeking a weapon consists in part on 18 documents indicating that "the Iranians have ventured into explosives, uranium processing and a missile warhead design."
On the 28th, an editorial in The New York Times entitled "Iran and the Inspectors" opined, "Amid all of the White House's saber-rattling, it is tempting to discount Iran's genuine misbehavior," citing the IAEA report as "a grim reminder that Tehran is pressing ahead with its nuclear program" which "the United States and allies don't have a strategy for containing." The framework is thus established, paralleling that of the White House: Iran's pursuit of nuclear power is illegitimate and this "misbehavior" must be contained.
Invoking terminology used with regard to U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq, the Times stated that "For the last five years, Iran has been playing cat-and-mouse with nuclear inspectors." As evidence of Iran's "cat-and-mouse" tactics, the Times added, "The I.A.E.A. turns up worrying hints of illicit activities, and Iran's leaders insist they are trying to produce nuclear energy, not a bomb. Iranian officials then balk at answering critical questions, providing essential documents or access to related sites, leaving the world no choice but to suspect the worst." We must therefore assume that Iran is working on a bomb. We have, after all, "no choice" but to do so.
A Washington Post editorial the same day echoed this assessment, with a byline that asked, "Will there be consequences for Tehran's stonewalling of U.N. nuclear inspectors?" It summarized the IAEA report as "saying, in essence, that Iran had not acted in good faith and was engaging in delaying tactics." Iran "has been installing two new and more advanced sets of centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, without providing required notification." In addition, "International inspectors were denied access to sites where the centrifuge components were manufactured." Reminiscent of criticisms of Hans Blix and Mohammed El Baradei, the chief inspectors for the UN and the IAEA, respectively, in Iraq, the Post said of El Baradei that, "the Egyptian-born director is far less concerned with preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb than in thwarting those he describes as the ‘crazies' in Washington."
The The Los Angeles Times went even further, stating in its headline that the IAEA report said that "Tehran sought a weapon through 2003." The article says the report "presents the clearest indication yet that Iran was working on a nuclear weapon through 2003" which echoes "a U.S. intelligence assessment in December."
A look at what the IAEA report actually says is instructive in light of the way it has been characterized.
With regard to Iran's enrichment of uranium, the report notes that Iran has produced only "low enriched uranium," not the highly-enriched uranium necessary to produce a bomb, and that it "remains under Agency containment and surveillance."
As the Washington Post editorial correctly observed, Iran had made modifications to centrifuges which, the IAEA report states, "should have been communicated to the Agency…sixty days before the modifications were scheduled to be completed." The Post, however, declined to relate that the report also states that "The Agency was, however, able to ensure that all necessary safeguards measures, including containment and surveillance, were in place before UF6 was fed into the newly installed centrifuges."
The Post also correctly noted that the IAEA was denied access to sites related to the manufacture of centrifuge components, but declined to inform readers that this is not required of Iran under its present agreement with the IAEA under the NPT treaty. Under a proposed Additional Protocol, the IAEA would have access to such sites. Mohammed El Baradei announced on June 2 that Iran is expected to soon implement the Additional Protocol.
A widely reported statement in the report says, "The alleged studies on the green salt project, high explosives testing and the missile re-entry vehicle project remain a matter of serious concern." Iran "maintains that all the allegations are baseless and that the data have been fabricated." Less widely reported, however, is the report's caveat that, with regard to the alleged proscribed activity, "It should be noted that the Agency currently has no information – apart from the uranium metal document – on the actual design or manufacture by Iran of nuclear material components of a nuclear weapon or of certain other key components, such as initiators, or on related nuclear physics studies."
Nuclear expert David Albright, in a report released by the Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), similarly stated, "Together these documents make a powerful case that Iran had an active weaponization effort prior to 2004. At the same time, it is important to note that they do not encompass the full scope of work required for a comprehensive nuclear weapons program. Missing from these documents is theoretical work on nuclear weapons, uranium metallurgy, and the development of a neutron initiator."
The IAEA report reiterates, "It should be emphasized, however, that the Agency has not detected the actual use of nuclear material in connection with the alleged studies."
In summary, while "serious concerns" do remain, "The Agency has been able to continue to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran. Iran has provided the Agency with access to declared nuclear material and has provided the required nuclear material accountancy reports in connection with declared nuclear material and activities."
One could not be blamed for getting a different impression by reading media accounts of the report's contents. Also missing from such accounts is the critical context of the report itself, which was a follow-up on a previous report, issued on February 22, and intended to outline developments made since then. That earlier report listed remaining outstanding issues up to that time and described the progress on each one.
With regard to "uranium particle contamination found on some equipment at a technical university," the IAEA, in the February report, "concluded that the explanation and supporting documentation provided by Iran regarding the possible source of contamination by uranium particles at the university were not inconsistent with the data currently available to the Agency. The Agency considers this question no longer outstanding at this stage."