For years, there have been questions about Iran’s nuclear intentions. While Tehran insists that it is merely pursuing its right to the peaceful uses of the atom as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), doubts about its ultimate ambitions have ebbed and flowed. On Nov. 8, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world’s nuclear watchdog, issued a new report that expressed a “serious concern regarding possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program.” Iran needs to make serious and sincere efforts so that such a concern will be dispelled.

The IAEA and Iran have been engaged in a diplomatic pas de deux for over a decade. It is true that some of the knowledge required to master peaceful uses of the atom can be applied in a military context, there are also specific technologies and procedures that only have a military application. These include miniaturization of various components so that they can fit in a warhead and the creation of precise triggers to create a nuclear chain reaction. The most recent IAEA report points to the possibility that Iran has been engaged in activities related to those technologies.

The IAEA report, presented to the agency’s Board of Governors on Nov. 17-18, detailed Iranian efforts allegedly aimed at acquiring those technologies. Relying on intelligence from various member states, the report identifies foreign scientists — former Soviet experts, along with Pakistani and North Korean scientists — who worked with Iranian counterparts to build those parts. It outlines a coordinated and ongoing series of programs that may have lasted over a decade — even though some experts thought the efforts had been suspended as a result of international and domestic pressure (the latter group triggered by concerns that the U.S.-led coalition that defeated Saddam Hussein might not stop in Baghdad). The report also raised a concern about the possible existence of undeclared nuclear facilities and material in Iran.

A detailed annex to the report lays out specifics, identifying the agencies and organizations that allegedly carried out the work, travel records of those international collaborators, procurement and financial records, health and safety documentation, etc. It supplements information provided by IAEA member states — read: their intelligence agencies — with satellite imagery, its own research results and even answers from Iranians themselves during inspection visits. Ultimately, the IAEA suspects “the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear-related activities involving military-related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” Worrying is that Iranian responses to agency concerns “have been imprecise and/or incomplete and information has been slow in coming and sometimes contradictory.” But the IAEA report does not include any assessment of Iran’s capability to make a nuclear explosive device on the basis of what it has learned through various activities.

Iran has vehemently criticized the IAEA’s latest report. Tehran insists that the evidence is flawed and the intelligence mistaken. Iranian officials dismiss the entire controversy as “100 percent political” and charge the IAEA is being used by foreign powers. Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA called the documentation “lousy,” and said the agency had confused legitimate conventional military programs with nuclear ones. He warned that the report was a “historical mistake” that “poisoned the atmosphere” in efforts to resolve the nuclear dispute diplomatically. Iran also has denounced the report as “unbalanced, unprofessional and politically motivated.”

The IAEA resolution approved by the board said there was “deep and increasing concern” about Iran’s nuclear program, but called for intensified dialogue to answer outstanding questions. The resolution sets a deadline for cooperation, telling the IAEA director general to prepare a report on the implementation of the resolution by the board’s next meeting, which will be held March 5, 2012.

For some, that is not enough. There are feverish reports that the Israeli government is preparing for a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Those reports are most likely intended to signal Israeli concern, rather than actual plans: Such an attack could succeed only if it were a surprise attack and no one knows that better than the Israelis. If they were serious, they would be silent.

An attack would be a mistake. Iranian nuclear facilities are very likely hidden, hardened and dispersed. There is little chance that a strike would get them all. It would merely set Iran’s nuclear program back, harden Iranian sentiment and unite a divided public with its government, swing opinion against Israel (and its supporters) and make a durable solution even harder.

Iran must be disabused of the notion that a nuclear program will help it in any way. Patient diplomacy is the only recourse, a process that will unite all nations to send Tehran a single signal. That demands the support of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to deprive Iran of the illusion that China or Russia will provide diplomatic cover. Other states in the Middle East must also be enlisted to keep the pressure on. Economic sanctions could be a part of this effort — Iranian trade partners must not be seduced by the allure of cheap oil.

Successful diplomacy also requires that Iranian demands be met as well. Tehran should be recognized as a legitimate presence in the region, one with needs and concerns of its own. Part of this effort is realization of the Middle East nuclear conference that was part of the last NPT Review Conference.

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