By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
Yukiya Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), mounted a candid defense of the United Nations nuclear watchdog's approach toward Iran in a recent interview. Dismissing Tehran's allegation of bias, he backed the agency's inspections in Iran. He also stated categorically that all of Iran's enriched uranium was monitored by the IAEA and that "despite unanswered questions, we cannot say that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons".
With another round of Iran nuclear talks scheduled for January 21-22 in Istanbul, Amano's views provide a timely window on the agency's complex involvement with Iran, which it has referred to the UN Security Council and which in turn has subjected it to several rounds of sanctions. Decrying those sanctions as unjust, Iran continues to insist that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.
Missing in the list of questions by the interviewer for German magazine Der Spiegel was any reference to WikiLeaks revelations that on returning from Iran, IAEA inspectors gave a private presentation to US diplomats. Another WikiLeaks disclosure featured Amano's self-description as being in the same boat as the US on all key strategic issues. The hawkishly pro-US Amano may not realize it, but such disclosures put a dent in the reputation of both the IAEA and its leadership.
Instead of confronting this head-on with even limited criticism of the agency's inspectors - some of whom have been accused of spying for the West - Amano has been unapologetic, recycling an attitude vis-a-vis Iran that is bound to backfire with at least member states from developing nations, most if not all of whom are members of the Non-Aligned Movement, a vocal supporter of Iran at the IAEA.
Claiming in the Der Spiegel interview that the IAEA's information about Iran's nuclear activities was "limited", Amano missed an opportunity to make a public statement that would prohibit future US-favoritism on the part of the agency's inspectors. Clearly, such failure leaves the door open for future privileges granted by the IAEA to the US. Despite Amano's insistence that he represents "all members", he apparently represents some nations more than others.
Nor did Amano said anything about the nuclear swap deal, which the agency first proposed in October 2009, and which has been repackaged by the triumvirate of Iran, Turkey and Brazil under the guise of the Tehran Declaration since May 2010.
In contrast, the Iranian representative to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, has told the media that the issue of a nuclear swap for a Tehran reactor would be discussed at the Istanbul meeting. If so, then the IAEA should be present, as well as Turkey, to achieve a successful meeting, at least on an important issue of the IAEA's legal assistance to a member state that continues to cooperate with the IAEA despite several rounds of sanctions.
In a warning to the "Iran Six" nations dealing with Iran's nuclear case, Soltanieh has said that if the Istanbul talks failed, Iran may not participate in any future rounds. The US and its allies should take this warning seriously because it could herald a new, and ominous, chapter in the history of the Iran nuclear standoff.
Meanwhile, news from Israel suggests that in addition to policy disagreements between the government and the military and intelligence leaders on the military option on Iran, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doing all he can to keep the war-mongering fire against Iran from being extinguished. This follows an admission by Meir Dagan, the outgoing head of the Mossad intelligence agency, that Iran would not be able to possess the capability to produce nuclear weapons until later this year. According to the Israeli paper Ha'aretz, Netanyahu is doing what former US president George W Bush did in 2002-2003 prior to his invasion of Iraq: replacing the nay-saying generals with compliant ones who will execute war orders.
Driving the war footing will not be easy, however, given the inescapable policy implications of new assessments such as one by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that sanctions are working and have "slowed" the Iran nuclear program.
Clinton has been touring the Persian Gulf region, trying to convince such Iran-friendly countries as Oman (and to a lesser extent Qatar) that despite the new information on Iran's nuclear program, the heat must be kept on Iran, a position that raises questions about the quality of evidence backing claims that Iran is in the process of acquiring nuclear weapons.
That is a question that Clinton and other Western diplomats prefer to put on the backburner, focusing instead on the need to keep the heat on Iran, a policy focus shared by Amano, who in his interview did not mention Israel's nuclear arsenal.
That would have indicated a more balanced approach by the director general of an agency that nowadays operates under a cloud of suspicion that it has increasingly turned itself into an instrument of US policy vis-a-vis Iran.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and his latest book, Looking for rights at Harvard, is now available.