Clamping down on Iran's nuclear ambitions

Saturday, February 20, 2010

THE LATEST report about Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency contains a lot of bad news: Iran has already produced its first batch of more highly enriched uranium, and it did so without waiting for IAEA inspectors to arrive; it has produced 4,550 pounds of low-enriched uranium -- almost enough, if further processed, for two atomic bombs; and it has begun work on manufacturing uranium in metallic form, another key step in bomb production.

There are, however, two pieces of good news amid all the bad -- something the Obama administration and its allies are badly in need of at a time when the effort to stop Tehran's nuclear program is showing little progress. The first is that the number of working centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment plant is declining, though the overall output is still increasing. A recent study by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) showed that more than half of the Natanz plant's 8,700 centrifuges were not working in November; the new IAEA report records a further decline. Iran's enrichment of its stockpile is also proceeding at a snail's pace.

More significant, the report signals that under a new leader, Yukiya Amano, the United Nations' nuclear inspection agency will scrupulously carry out its technical mission and honestly report the facts. That would be a sea change from the politicized tenure of former chief Mohammed ElBaradei, who envisioned himself as an independent actor and openly declared his opposition to sanctions or military action against Iran. Mr. ElBaradei kept the IAEA from reporting all that it knew about Iran's pursuit of a bomb and refused to draw obvious conclusions.

No more, it seems: "The information . . . raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile," says the first report issued under Mr. Amano. Let's hope such frankness helps clarify the ongoing discussion at the U.N. Security Council about further sanctions. As the IAEA report makes clear, neither existing sanctions, nor technical problems, nor the Obama administration's offers of engagement have stopped Iran's drive for a weapon.

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