Iran won't come clean about its nuclear program, the UN's atomic watchdog agency concludes in a new report that is certain to raise the stakes in a looming showdown over slapping new sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Tehran's lack of co-operation "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," the International Atomic Energy Agency stated in a report released on Thursday, the first time the UN agency has said Iran may currently be working on making a nuclear warhead.
While admitting it has no hard evidence of a nuclear-weapons program, the IAEA says Tehran's obstructionism, its refusal to answer questions and submit to inspections, and its stonewalling over hidden facilities for the last two years strongly suggest a clandestine weapons program.
While the Obama administration, pushing hard to impose new sanctions on Tehran, hailed the report as a wake-up call, it was greeted with less fanfare by some independent analysts.
"If it has taken the IAEA this long to figure out that Iran might have a nuclear-weapons program, then I guess they were the last ones in the room to figure it out," said John Pike, an authority on defence policy and founder of GlobalSecurity.org.
Touring a new guided-missile destroyer at a port on the Persian Gulf, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, dismissed suggestions his country is seeking nuclear weapons. Muslims, he said, "do not believe in atomic weapons," adding Islam considers "these kinds of weapons of mass destruction to be symbols of genocide and, therefore, forbidden."
The Islamic regime rejected the report as "nonsensical," perhaps because it was more toughly worded than previous assessments. It was the first IAEA report on Iran since Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano replaced Mohamed ElBaradei, an Egyptian, as the agency's director general.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who has vaguely vowed to prevent Iran from joining the ranks of nuclear-armed states, has been seeking support in the UN Security Council for another round of sanctions. "We've always said that if Iran failed to live up to those international obligations that there would be consequences," said his spokesman Robert Gibbs yesterday. "And this report [shows]the world again the obligations they're failing to live up to."
But just as former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush vaguely vowed but failed to prevent North Korea from defying the world and adding itself to the nuclear-weapons club, Mr. Obama may be unwilling to use the military, which the White House always insists, remains an option.
"Either we are going to bomb Iran's nuclear program or we are not," Mr. Pike said. "I suspect we are not and that Iran will get the bomb and everyone will get accustomed to it."
Everyone, save perhaps Israel, which has twice - against Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 - sent warplanes to attack nuclear-reactor sites in pre-emptive bombing missions.
Mr. Pike believes Israel will again attack to prevent Iran from tipping its arsenal of missiles with nuclear warheads.
However, Iran's myriad nuclear sites are widely dispersed and some are buried deep underground, making it impossible for a single Israeli air raid to wipe out the entire nuclear infrastructure.
There remain hopes that yet another round of UN sanctions could so squeeze Iran that it will abandon its nuclear program or at least co-operate sufficiently with IAEA inspectors to establish that the program is - as claimed - entirely peaceful and aimed at producing electricity and medical isotopes.
In the wake of yesterday's IAEA report, the Obama administration received welcome support from Russia, which is selling Iran a reactor and has been opposed to the idea of sanctions.
"We are very alarmed and we cannot accept this, that Iran is refusing to co-operate with the IAEA," said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the toughest statement to date from Moscow.
In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said Tehran's "dangerous nuclear policy forces the international community to pursue further comprehensive sanctions." The French Foreign Ministry said the IAEA report "shows how urgent it is to take resolute action to respond to Iran's lack of co-operation."