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IRAN: Nuclear past, present and future under a microscope

November 17, 2009 | 10:36 am

Jordan-zweiri-courtesyIranian officials have curtly dismissed a recent quarterly report  about Iran's nuclear program as much ado about nothing.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, called on the U.N. body to put an end to its "boring and perpetual" approach to Iran's nuclear program.

But others see in the report significant changes in tone and content that could spell more sanctions for Iran.

Mahjoob Zweiri (right) is a specialist on Iran and the Middle East at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, in Amman.

Though he says he couldn't find anything of substance in the report itself, its language and tone come at a critical time when talk of upping pressure on Iran is increasing.

"The report has a great link to the proposal for the uranium swap," he said, referring to the atomic energy agency's proposal for Iran to trade in its potentially dual-use enriched uranium for fuel rods fitted for a Tehran medical research facility.

Recently, Moscow has said it was open to increasing pressure on Iran after saying for months it would refuse to do so.

"These statements came from Russia that Russia will support new resolutions or sanctions on Iran if it does not respond positively are new," Zweiri said. "Iran is between two choices. One is to show flexibility about the IAEA proposal and try to deal with it in a more positive manner."

The other choice?

"If Iran does not respond positively there will be more sanctions focusing on the issue of petroleum preventing big companies from exporting petrol," he said.

The Obama administration has clearly begun taking steps in anticipation of a failure in diplomatic outreach toward Tehran, he said in a telephone interview with The Times.

"To me it seems that Plan B is clear," he said. "President Obama extended sanctions on Iran for one year. The Europeans are discussing the same issue. There’s a direct discussion between France and Britain  over this issue.  They go to the U.N. and get a new resolution."

Zweiri said the language of the atomic energy agency report is clearly aimed at laying the groundwork for Plan B. 

"The  IAEA is in a tricky position," he said. "They want to keep their work focused on technical issues. But they think it’s also a political issue. They want to please western powers but keep the door open to Iran."

The highlight of the report is a section chronicling Iran's efforts to create a network of sites hardened against a possible military attack. 

Zweiri saw this as part of the steps taken with the arrival of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who took over as president in 2005.

"Iranian behavior has changed since 2005," he said. 

"They became more focused and determined to make fast steps in their program," he says. "Because of the rhetoric between Iran and the U.S., they were doing something quickly, trying to create realities on the ground and then going to negotiate. They are moving to protect their progress and achievements."

So does Zweiri think Iran is going for a nuclear weapon, nuclear weapons capability or just an advanced, peaceful nuclear program?

Not an easy question to answer, he says.

"If you keep developing your capabilities, even if you’re not planning it, you will have this capability," he says. "What is needed is the political will" to build a weapons program.

"I don’t have any evidence that they have the political will," he says. "They don’t want to lose everything. As soon as they announce or the international community becomes aware that they have the political will [to build weapons], they could lose it all immediately in a military attack."

-- Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: Mahjoob Zweiri: Credit: Mahjoob Zweiri

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