No smoking gun in Iran nuclear report
Vienna - The UN atomic watchdog's hardest-hitting report to date on Iran's suspected nuclear weapons drive is probably too weak to convince Russia and China of the need for more sanctions, analysts said on Wednesday.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said in a keenly awaited assessment circulated late on Tuesday it had broadly "credible" intelligence suggesting Iran had done work towards building nuclear warheads.
Iranian officials immediately slammed the report as "baseless" and "politically motivated."
Publishing reams of input from foreign intelligence agencies, and backed up by its own information, the IAEA said the Islamic republic had engaged in activities that could only conceivably have one purpose: producing the bomb.
These included computer modelling of a nuclear warhead; testing explosives in a large metal chamber at the sprawling Parchin military base near Tehran; and studying how to arm a Shahab 3 medium-range missile with an atomic warhead.
Significantly, although its findings concurred with a much-cited 2007 US intelligence report suggesting Iran had scrapped an official nuclear weapons drive in 2003, the IAEA also suspects some covert work had continued.
The United States said late on Tuesday it would ratchet up pressure and consult its partners on possible new sanctions, while fellow permanent UN Security Council member France called on Wednesday for "unprecedented sanctions".
"The overwhelming impression is that over 20-25 years Iran... consistently engaged in activities that are useful for nuclear weapons production," Mark Hibbs from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank told AFP.
"Some of the activities may have another use... but it is the context which is important. We are talking about a country that has been hiding its activities and that has been deceiving the agency for a period of over two decades."
No smoking gun
Peter Crail from the Arms Control Association in Washington agreed, but he said that the report did not constitute a "smoking gun" proving conclusively that the Iranians "are on the verge of making a nuclear weapon".
"This isn't new blockbuster information," Crail told AFP.
"It is just more detail behind the current assessments, that Iran has been trying to build different aspects of a nuclear weapons programme but that it hasn't yet made a decision to put all those together and actually pursue a bomb."
The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said that if it were true that Iran engaged in "weaponisation activities" after 2003, this would constitute a "major violation" of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).
"Notably absent, however, is any assessment by the IAEA of Iran's capability to make a nuclear explosive device based on what is learned through these activities," the Washington-based think-tank said in a report.
As a result, analysts said it would be tough to convince Russia and China of the need for the IAEA's board to pass a resolution when it meets next Thursday and Friday reporting Iran to the UN Security Council again for non-compliance.
Such a resolution, even if passed by the board where a simple majority is needed, would in any case be dead in the water by the time it arrived in New York, where Moscow and Beijing both wield a veto.
"Six weeks ago we were hearing from these countries [China and Russia] that they were not willing to support that resolution. That resolve on the Russian and Chinese side appears to have remained firm," Hibbs said.
"Russia is not going to be very enthusiastic about Security Council resolutions," said Denis Bauchard of the Paris-based IFRI, saying tensions in New York over Libya and Syria meant conditions were currently "not very favourable".
Moscow on Tuesday even went so far as to express anger over the publication of the report, saying it risked damaging the chance of a renewal of talks, with the foreign ministry saying it was "gravely disappointed and bewildered".
But Crail added the report was damning enough to build a "very strong case" for strengthening the existing sanctions, saying countries still had a "lot of latitude" to impose more restrictions within the existing legal framework.
Analysts also said that the IAEA's report also showed that the existing sanctions were hindering Iran's efforts to enrich uranium, which can be used in nuclear power generation - and in atomic weapons.