Nuclear Confrontation: What's Next for Iran?

Iran will face the United Nations Security Council next month over the status of its nuclear program and failure to suspend uranium enrichment work.

The 35-member Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) voted today 27 to 3, with five abstentions, in favor of a resolution finding that Iran had "many failures and breaches of its obligations" under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and calling on Iran to "re-establish full and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities."

Earlier this week, the deputy director general of the IAEA issued a four-page briefing in advance of the emergency board meeting highlighting several unresolved issues of concern to nuclear inspectors and noting that Iran was in possession of technical documents "related to the fabrication of nuclear weapon components."

The IAEA also highlighted research activities that appear to have a "military nuclear dimension." These include tests related to high explosives and the design of a missile re-entry vehicle.

It was the first time an IAEA report so unambiguously reported evidence of nuclear weapons-related research on Iran's part.

Corey Hinderstein, deputy director of the Institute for Science and International Security said, "Iran has refused to clarify these issues that resulted from information the U.S. provided the IAEA last summer, and continues to decide what it will cooperate on, ignoring those issues that tend to strike home and could lead to the exposure of undeclared nuclear weapons activities."

What Happens Next?

Referral of Iran to the Security Council is the first step on a long road to persuading Iran to give up the elements of its nuclear program -- in particular uranium enrichment, which can be used for nuclear weapons.

Initially, the Security Council can be expected to issue statements simply urging Iran to resume the suspension of its enrichment activity. Stronger measures, including sanctions, are not now under consideration.

Shortly after the resolution was adopted, Iran announced it would end "voluntary cooperation" with the IAEA and begin enrichment of uranium.

As a signatory to the NPT, Iran is entitled to a peaceful nuclear energy program, including the enrichment of uranium.

Iran's case raises special concerns, however, because its only nuclear reactor, at Bushehr, will operate using uranium fuel provided by Russia, and there is now at least circumstantial evidence that Iran's nuclear ambitions extend in he direction of a weapons program. Experts also note that the scale of its uranium enrichment facilities is inadequate for the production of fuel for a reactor, but just right for a nuclear weapons program.

Iran currently has 164 centrifuges installed at a pilot-scale facility at Natanz. Until last month, they were under IAEA seal and not operating. Iran began removing the seals on Jan. 10 and has recently begun to test the centrifuges, possibly in preparation for the introduction of fuel that would be enriched.