In the sound and fury following the U.N. nuclear governors’ censure of Iran last week for its cover-up of a second uranium enrichment site, and Tehran’s rejection of a nuclear cooperation deal with world powers, a broader, festering issue was obscured.

That is the question of “alleged military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear programme — that is, whether Tehran illicitly coordinated projects to process uranium, test high explosives and revamp the cone of a missile to fit a nuclear payload.

 Uranium enrichment can be calibrated to yield fuel either for nuclear power plants or the fissile core of a nuclear bomb.

Resolving whether Iran has sought to “weaponize” enrichment will be one of the biggest challenges for Japan’s Yukiya Amano, new director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who took office on Tuesday ominously referring to “the stormy situation” enveloping the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Since 2004, 10 nations, but mainly the United States and Israel, Iran’s arch-foes, have turned intelligence material over to the IAEA – much of it on a laptop computer spirited out of Iran — pointing to nuclear weapons research by Tehran.

Iran says the intelligence is fabricated, or that the experiments cited had to do with conventional weaponry only.

In the sound and fury following the U.N. nuclear governors’ censure of Iran last week for its cover-up of a second uranium enrichment site, and Tehran’s rejection of a nuclear cooperation deal with world powers, a broader, festering issue was obscured.

That is the question of “alleged military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear programme — that is, whether Tehran illicitly coordinated projects to process uranium, test high explosives and revamp the cone of a missile to fit a nuclear payload.
Uranium enrichment can be calibrated to yield fuel either for nuclear power plants or the fissile core of a nuclear bomb.

Resolving whether Iran has sought to “weaponize” enrichment will be one of the biggest challenges for Japan’s Yukiya Amano, new director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who took office on Tuesday ominously referring to “the stormy situation” enveloping the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

Since 2004, 10 nations, but mainly the United States and Israel, Iran’s arch-foes, have turned intelligence material over to the IAEA – much of it on a laptop computer spirited out of Iran — pointing to nuclear weapons research by Tehran.

Iran says the intelligence is fabricated, or that the experiments cited had to do with conventional weaponry only.

But it has rebuffed IAEA demands for documentation and access to officials and defence ministry sites named in the material. Only with such transparency can Iran substantiate its denials, the agency says.

But in 2008, Iran declared the affair “closed” and has ignored further IAEA entreaties for cooperation.

“We are at a dead end in this area, unless Iran engages us substantively,” Mohamed ElBaradei, Amano’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning predecessor, said matter-of-factly in a farewell interview with Reuters before retiring on Monday after 12 years.

Some critics, led by France and Israel, are not convinced. Those who had long felt ElBaradei “appeased” Iran by softening inspector reports on its nuclear evasions — something denied by the IAEA — went further in September when they accused him of withholding conclusive findings about an Iranian bomb programme, at times against the wishes of some of his top inspectors.

Then, in what looked like a gambit to “flush out” ElBaradei, parts of a classified, running analysis of the intelligence by IAEA experts were leaked to some U.S. media. The excerpts brimmed with detail not in IAEA reports so far, describing explosives research and missile re-design work which the authors said could have only nuclear applications, and concluding Iran now has the expertise to assemble atomic bombs.

The IAEA stuck to its public stance: While the intelligence was compelling, it remained unverified. No nuclear weapons components or fuel material has been found, therefore the agency has no “concrete proof” of a bomb programme in Iran.

“Our people compile all the information we get, do their own analysis. But this is an internal analysis by one or two people, that has not been ventilated within the department concerned,” ElBaradei told me.

“What you have seen in the media is a lot of hype, bits and pieces from the analysis that have been glued together to create a certain impression,” he said.

In apparent reference to the media leaks that roiled the IAEA, he said, “There is a lot of infiltration by intelligence agencies who want us to say, this (Iran is making bombs) is our conclusion. This is not our conclusion.

“As of today we have no credible evidence that Iran has an ongoing nuclear weapons programme. Whether they have done studies in the past, that could be. But we are not yet in a position to say so definitively,” said ElBaradei.

“Even the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate said Iran has done that (weaponization studies) but stopped in 2003. Other intelligence agencies say Iran always continued, still others say they stopped, and then restarted,” he said.

“I told these intelligence agencies, you better get your act together, because it doesn’t really give the IAEA a lot of confidence if we hear these different assessments. So (we) cannot jump the gun … when this could lead to a disastrous effect by providing the context for waging a war.

“We learnt our lesson from Iraq, where a war was waged on the basis of completely false pretences,” he said, alluding to U.S. allegations of a weapons-of-mass destruction programme by Saddam Hussein that proved baseless.

ElBaradei’s caution was rooted in his self-styled role as a peacemaker who felt only negotiated compromise, not punitive sanctions pursued by Washington or last-ditch war mooted by Israel, will elicit nuclear restraint and transparency by Iran.

Diplomats believe Amano will be inclined to put more teeth in the IAEA approach to Iran. But like ElBaradei, he will be limited by the IAEA’s lack of authority to comb Iran for secret sites, and fear of losing access to plants now under inspection.