Thursday, October 01, 2009

'No credible evidence' of Iranian nuclear weapons, says UN inspector

It feels like deja vu all over again. Mohamed ElBaradei is saying that he has seen "no credible evidence" that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, just as he told us before the Iraq war that he had seen "no credible evidence" that Saddam possessed WMD.

ElBaradei's words were ignored six years ago by an American administration determined to remove Saddam at all costs, a decision which still haunts the US to this day. The recent language from Obama, Sarkosy and Brown makes me wonder if we are about to repeat that mistake. Oh, don't get me wrong, we won't go to war this time, but we might end up taking action based on threats rather than realities, chasing shadows rather than shining a torch and revealing what is true.

Iran insists its programme is for peaceful purposes, and that there is nothing illegal about a uranium enrichment plant under construction near the city of Qom, the existence of which was revealed last week. Iranian leaders say they did not have to inform the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) until six months before the first uranium was processed.

But ElBaradei, the outgoing IAEA director general, publicly disagreed today, saying Iran had been under an obligation to tell the agency "on the day it was decided to construct the facility". He said the Iranian government was "on the wrong side of the law".

However, ElBaradei rejected British intelligence claims that Iran had reactivated its weapons programme at least four years ago. By making the claims the UK broke with the official US intelligence position that Iranian work on developing a warhead probably stopped in 2003. They said that even if there was a halt, as reported in a US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) two years ago, the programme restarted in late 2004 or early 2005.

British officials had been privately sceptical about the NIE finding since its publication in 2007, but this was the first time they had made detailed allegations about Iran's weapons programme.

So, ElBaradei disagrees with Ahmadinejad's claim that he was under no obligation to disclose the facility at Qom until six months before uranium was introduced to the site, yet he still disagrees with the assessment of the Brits that the Iranians have restarted their nuclear weapons progamme.

This is because ElBaradei deals with facts, he deals with what can be proven. Intelligence agencies have to, by their very nature, deal with what might be.

But it really is tiresome, six years after the Iraq war, to find ourselves once again weighed down with claim and counter claim.

The US, Britain and France need to insist on inspections, and, unlike the inspections which took place prior to the Iraq war, they need to see these inspections as an ongoing way to ensure Iranian compliance with the NNPT. It would be stupid to use the inspections as a way to impose sanctions on Iran, as Iran has already made it perfectly clear that it will not stop it's uranium enrichment process as this process is legal under the NNPT.

Iranian officials say its programme remains non-negotiable, despite five UN security council resolutions calling for Iran to suspend enrichment. Western negotiators say they will push for a date for an IAEA inspection of the Qom uranium plant, and further concrete steps from the Iranian government to restore international confidence in the peaceful purpose of its programme. Failing that, multilateral talks will start on the imposition of more sanctions.

We are right to insist on inspections and to threaten to carry out sanctions should Iran not comply, but we should not go down the George Bush route of threatening sanctions unless Iran agrees to turn off it's centrifuges.

The burden of proof in this instance lies with us. We have to be able to prove that Iran is building a weapon or we have to allow them to do what is legal under the NNPT.

After the shame of the Iraq war, we have lost the right to have our suspicions treated as if they were facts. And, just has happened before the Iraq war, ElBaradei is, once again, telling us that the facts on the ground do not support our assertions.

This time, we should listen.

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