The UN nuclear watchdog is expected this week to issue its
most detailed report yet on research in Iran seen as geared to developing
atomic bombs, heightening international suspicions of Iranian intentions and
fuelling Middle East tension.
Western powers are likely to seize on the International
Atomic Energy Agency document, which has been preceded by media speculation in
Israel of military strikes against Iranian nuclear sites, to press for more
sanctions on the oil producer.
But Russia and China fear the publication now of the IAEA's
findings could hurt any chance of diplomacy resolving the long-running nuclear
row and they have lobbied against it, signalling opposition to any new punitive
UN measures against Iran.
Iran rejects allegations of atomic weapons ambitions, saying
its nuclear programme is aimed at producing electricity.
The report is tentatively scheduled to be submitted to IAEA
member states on Nov 9 before a quarterly meeting the following week of the agency's
35-nation board of governors in Vienna.
It "will be followed by a US-European Union push for
harsher sanctions against Iran at the UN Security Council, where Western powers
will meet stiff resistance from Russia and China," said Trita Parsi, an
expert on US-Iran relations.
The document is expected to give fresh evidence of research
and other activities with little other application than atomic bomb-making,
including studies linked to the development of an atom bomb trigger and
computer modelling of a nuclear weapon.
Sources briefed on the report also say it will include
information from both before and after 2003 - the year in which US spy services
estimated, in a controversial 2007 assessment, that Iran had halted outright
Many conservative experts criticised the 2007 findings as
inaccurate and naive, and US intelligence agencies now believe Iranian leaders
have resumed closed-door debates over the last four years about whether to
build a nuclear bomb.
"The primary new information is likely to be any work
that Iran has engaged in after 2003 ... Iran is understood to have continued or
restarted some research and development since then," said Peter Crail of
the Arms Control Association, a US-based advocacy group.
The sources familiar with the document said that among other
things it would support allegations that Iran built a large steel container for
the purpose of carrying out tests with high explosives applicable to nuclear
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"This is not a country that is sitting down just doing
some theoretical stuff on a computer," a Western official said about the
IAEA's body of evidence, which is based on Western intelligence as well as the
agency's own investigations.
The report will flesh out and expand on concerns voiced by
the IAEA for several years over allegations that Iran had a linked programme of
projects to process uranium, test high explosives and modify a missile cone to
take a nuclear payload.
It is not believed to contain an explicit assessment that
Iran is developing a nuclear weapons capability. "The IAEA's report will
not likely contain any smoking guns," said Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace.
But Western diplomats say the dossier will be incriminating
for the Islamic Republic and present a compelling case that it is carrying out
Iran says the accusations of military nuclear activity are
forged and baseless, showing no sign of backing down in the face of intensified
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said he did not
fear possible revelations, saying on Saturday:
"They are claiming that they are going to publish new
documents. We know what the truth is -- let them publish them and we'll see
what happens. Will they not be called into question as an agency that is under
pressure by foreign powers?"
But Iran's history of concealing sensitive nuclear activity
and its refusal to suspend work that can potentially yield atomic bombs have
already been punished by four rounds of UN sanctions, and separate US and
European punitive steps.
In the run-up to the report there has been an escalation of
rhetoric on both sides.
A senior US military official said on Friday Iran had become
the biggest threat to the United States and Israel's president said the
military option to prevent Iran obtaining nuclear weapons was nearer.
Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and launched
a similar strike against Syria in 2007 -- precedents lending weight to its
veiled threats to take similar action against Iran if foreign pressure fails to
curb its atomic activities.
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But many independent analysts see any such mission as too
much for Israel to take on alone. Israel lacks long-range bombers that could
deliver lasting damage to Iran's dispersed and fortified facilities.
Parsi said US officials tended to view Israeli threats of military
action as a pressure tactic to get Washington and Europe to adopt tougher
sanctions against Iran.
But it he said would be dangerous to dismiss Israel's
"sabre-rattling" out of hand, he said.
"How much longer can this game of brinkmanship ... be pursued
before it turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy?" Parsi wrote in an
article posted on the website of CNN.
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