Whose atomic energy agency is it, anyway?

The new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, published Nov. 8, is both preposterous and dispiriting. Preposterous, because the IAEA has reinterpreted “old” facts instead of presenting new evidence. Dispiriting, because the reinterpretation may feed the growing punish-and-bomb Iran frenzy.

In an old Cold War joke, Ronald Reagan and Leonid Brezhnev compete in a two-man race. The Soviet media reports on the results thus: “In an international athletics competition, Comrade Brezhnev came in second; President Reagan was second to last”. Technically correct, but a deliberately false representation of the truth.

Similarly, using the same evidence, Mohamed ElBaradei’s reports concluded there was no conclusive proof Iran had crossed the weapons threshold. His successor Yukio Amano concludes there is no conclusive proof that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and he “has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.”

The five NPT-licit nuclear powers have subverted the Non-Proliferation Treaty from a nuclear prohibition into a nonproliferation regime. The only authority for enforcing NPT obligations is the U.N. Security Council. The IAEA is the U.N.’s technical but neutral nuclear watchdog. Nobel Peace laureate ElBaradei successfully protected IAEA independence and credibility during the 2002-03 crisis over Iraq. Washington failed to thwart his reappointment.

When the time came for ElBaradei to leave the IAEA in 2009, Amano was Washington’s choice because, according to a U.S. embassy cable, he was believed to be “solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision,” including Iran.

Iran has the legal right to enrich uranium. It might have an interest in doing so for weapons-related purposes precisely because it lives in a particularly threatening environment that includes five nuclear-armed states (Israel, Pakistan, India, Russia, China). American ground troops are deployed in large numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan and U.S. warships ply the seas around Iran. Britain and the U.S. have intervened repeatedly in Iran and have a record of almost unbroken bellicose rhetoric against the Islamic republic.

During the eight-year war (1980-88), the international community refused to help Iran as the victim of Iraq’s aggression, including with chemical weapons. In 2003, a disarmed Saddam Hussein was attacked by a U.S.-led coalition. This year, a nuclear-disarmed Libya was attacked by NATO; a nuclear North Korea has not been attacked.

Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated. The nuclear program has been subjected to cyber-attacks by the Stuxnet computer virus. Iran may be paranoid, but it does have real enemies.

Given this history, geography and strategic realities, in the absence of either a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone that includes Israel or universal nuclear disarmament, the pursuit of nuclear weapons by Iran is probably irreversible. But there is no firm evidence that it has actually tipped over into weapons production.

The new report lists efforts by Iran’s military to procure nuclear-related and dual-use material and equipment; to develop ways and means of producing undeclared nuclear material; to tap into clandestine networks for obtaining weapons-related information and documentation; and to work on an indigenous nuclear weapons design. Importantly, however, all these activities took place before 2003. There is no fresh revelation. Even the pre-2003 assessment referred to weapons-relevant research by Iranian scientists, not to constructing a bomb factory. Hence the startlingly wishy-washy conclusion: there are “indications that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing.”

Iran today can no more prove a negative — that it does not have hidden proliferation activities — than could Iraq in 2003. According to the consensus view of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies first stated in 2007 and repeated this year, Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and has not restarted it. Earlier this year, ElBaradei insisted that Iran does not constitute “a clear and present danger.” There is not “a shred of evidence” that it is actually weaponizing, he said, as opposed to positioning itself to be able to do so at a later date.

The world’s dilemma is that it would be virtually impossible to take any effective action after the fact. But it is not clear what can be done before the fact either. Given the economic malaise afflicting the West, imposing sanctions on Iran would be self-damaging.

There is much to admire about Israel, including chutzpah, as an NPT-illicit nuclear power, of demanding that Iran be forcibly prevented from acquiring the bomb. Israel is no more hypocritical than the NPT-licit 5. Israel’s attack on Iraq’s reactor in 1981, far from destroying an existing capability, spurred Saddam Hussein into the search for a weapons-of-mass-destruction capability. Accepting that Iran has been building technical and material capacity to weaponize, threats of military action will probably strengthen the hawks in Tehran who want to get as many bombs as quickly as possible.

The creeping politicization of the IAEA is provoking a backlash. In September 2010, the 117-strong NAM (Nonaligned Movement) expressed concerns at Amano’s “departure from standard verification language”. The NAM countries were unhappy also with the uncritical acceptance of self-servingly selective Western-sourced intelligence on Iran’s nuclear activities.

In 2003, facts and intelligence were fixed to justify the pre-determined decision to go to war. But at least Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, and ElBaradei held firm on their respective institutional integrity. Now Amano is turning the IAEA into an instrument for justifying aggression against Iran. Also reminiscent of 2003, his report relies on innuendo and insinuation rather than verifiable evidence and facts.

The drumbeats of war are gathering strength once again. As with Iraq, the justification is unpersuasive, the risks of wider unintended consequences are grave, and the moral authority of those seeking to go on the attack is suspect.

In time, this report may rebound on the IAEA itself and discredit it as an impartial agency serving the international community.

The real policy challenge is how to keep Iran this side of weaponization and integrate it into the wider Middle East security architecture as a nuclear-capable but not nuclear-armed country.

Professor Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University.