Home inFocus Can the IAEA Be Saved?

Can the IAEA Be Saved?

Barak M. Seener Winter 2009

When the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) was established in 1957, it was largely a technically-oriented body focused on the peaceful uses of atomic energy in accordance with U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vision of “Atoms for Peace.” The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), signed 11 years later in 1968, was designed to enforce this vision of peace. However, the system has been beset with flaws from its inception. It was based on the notion that all states would be honest about their nuclear programs, and their intentions. Accordingly, there are no enforcement provisions.

The IAEA has, over time, lost sight of its original mission. Rather than performing technical studies to assess the nuclear capacity of states and leaving the political considerations to the United Nations Security Council, the IAEA has strayed into the business of international politics. In this capacity, it has too often apologized for proliferators rather than hindering their illicit actions.

The Paradox of the NPT

The NPT, which is essentially the IAEA’s mandate, has made headlines of late. Faced with the challenge of thwarting Iranian attempts to harness nuclear energy for weapons, U.S. President Barack Obama has underscored the importance of the NPT’s three pillars: non-proliferation, disarmament, and the right to civilian nuclear activities.

These pillars, however, are not always easy to reconcile. Several of the President’s recent speeches underscore this. For example, in his Prague speech, on April 5, 2009, Obama declared that the international community must support his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Yet, Obama also stated that, “as long as these [nuclear] weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.” So much for disarmament.

Then, in a speech from Cairo two months later, Obama stated, “No single nation should pick and choose which nation holds nuclear weapons.” This seems to undercut the notion that the U.S. has the right to impose economic sanctions against offending states. So much for non-proliferation

Finally, Obama has repeatedly underscored the right of any state to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes. Yet, the IAEA lacks the ability to ensure that these programs are strictly for civilian use.

IAEA Failures

A 2002 NPT conference lays bare the IAEA’s lack of authority. According to one passage from the meeting, “multilateral instruments such as disarmament, IAEA safeguards, security guarantees, and nuclear transfer restrictions and export controls might not be sufficient as a whole to deal with new forms of nuclear threats and challenges.” Problem areas cited included “unresolved compliance concerns in NPT States Parties, notably Iraq and North Korea, as well as a sense of helplessness and cluelessness with respect to the nuclear weapon capabilities of Non States Parties.” This candid statement does not even include the challenges of Iran and Libya.

The failures associated with Iraq were clear in the 1990s. It was U.N. Security Council-appointed inspectors—not IAEA inspectors—who revealed that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq sought military nuclear power.

In the case of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il repeatedly refused IAEA inspectors entry to the country in 1993, but under the safeguards agreement he was legitimately exercising his rights. After a series of delays, IAEA inspectors were eventually granted access and only accidentally stumbled upon North Korea’s plutonium production.

In the case of Iran, the IAEA did not uncover the Mullahs’ nuclear activities. Rather, it was an Iranian dissident group that reported Iran’s nuclear activities.

The IAEA did nothing to expose Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi’s illicit weapons program. Indeed, U.S. intelligence can be credited for discovering it.

In each of the above cases, the IAEA failed to identify and declare the noncompliance of these regimes.

The IAEA on Iran

Unable to conduct credible technical analyses in the countries in question, the IAEA instead resorted to political doublespeak. This is particularly true in the case of Iran.

For example, when interviewed by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2009, IAEA chief Mohamed El Baradei declared that there is no concrete evidence that Tehran has an ongoing nuclear weapons program. “In many ways,” he stated, “I think the threat has been hyped.” Yet, a secret IAEA report revealed that Iran has the ability to make a nuclear bomb, and is developing a missile delivery system to accommodate an atomic warhead. The IAEA’s decision to issue a statement that contradicted its findings is troubling.

This was not the first time that the IAEA contradicted itself. In 2005, El Baradei stated that Iran violated its obligations as a signatory of the NPT. Three years later, however, the IAEA concluded that Iran’s nuclear program was geared toward peaceful activity, and that verification of the correctness and completeness of Iran’s declarations remained ongoing.

In October 2009, amidst rising international tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, El Baradei reported that the top Iranian nuclear official, Ali Akbar Salehi, had been successful, and that inspectors would ensure that the facility in Qom was for “peaceful purposes.” He added, despite the fact that Iran had not granted the IAEA the ability to inspect suspected nuclear sites, that Iran was “shifting gears from confrontation into transparency and co-operation.”

Days later, as Iran continued to issue defiant statements about its right to create a nuclear program, El Baradei declared to the world that Israel was the number one threat to the Middle East, given the nuclear arms it possesses. Yet, Israel has never formally declared that it possesses nuclear weapons. Indeed, the IAEA had no technical basis for its assessment.

Although Iran has been reprimanded in IAEA reports, the IAEA has sought to avoid clear judgments that could trigger U.N. sanctions. Indeed, the IAEA secretariat makes a dubious distinction between “technical” misconduct, such as not reporting the imports of materials, and “substantial” noncompliance of NPT obligations. As the IAEA Director General stated in 2003, “[The Iranians] failed in their obligation to report materials, which is different from saying Iran has been working on a nuclear weapons program, or Iran has been enriching uranium.”

In 2009, Mohammad Mohammadi-Golpayegani, an advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, stated that a new Iranian nuclear plant, “will soon become operational and will make the enemies blind.” Inexplicably, El Baradei told The New York Times that the fortified site beneath a desert mountain near the city of Qom was “nothing to be worried about.”

Later that month, reports surfaced that the IAEA was withholding evidence that Iran tested components of a “two-point implosion” device. When the news broke, critics accused El Baradei of withholding the secret annex. The IAEA chief bristled at the allegations, calling them “politically motivated and baseless” insisting that there was “no concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapons program in Iran.”

The IAEA then passed a resolution calling upon “Israel to accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and place all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards.” Indeed, the IAEA elected to admonish Israel, rather than focus on the allegations against Iran that the IAEA could itself corroborate.

The IAEA and Syria

The case of Syria is also instructive. The IAEA has tried in vain to get more access to Syria in order to verify whether a site bombed by Israel in 2007 was indeed a secret nuclear reactor under construction. El Baradei states that he lacks the “ability to confirm Syria’s explanation regarding the past nature of the destroyed building… because Syria has not provided sufficient access to information, locations, equipment, or materials.” Inspectors also have been barred from the site. Yet, rather than condemning Syria for failing to provide access, El Baradei said in June, 2008, “it is doubtful we will find anything there, assuming there was anything there in the first place.”

Notably, after Israel bombed the suspected nuclear facility, El-Baradei issued a scathing statement against Israel. “The Director General deplores the fact that this information was not provided to the Agency in a timely manner, in accordance with the Agency’s responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to enable it to verify its veracity and establish the facts.” He added that he viewed the “unilateral use of force by Israel as undermining the due process of verification that is at the heart of the non-proliferation regime.”

When environmental samplings were finally taken by the IAEA at the suspected nuclear reactor site, on November 19, 2008, the IAEA reported that it found “a significant number of natural uranium particles.” Some American nuclear experts speculated about the similarities between the Syrian facility and North Korea’s Yongbon reactor. El Baradei, for his part, stated that because “there was uranium… doesn’t mean that there was a reactor.” It should also be noted that El Baradei failed to note that North Korea was further suspected of supplying the technical know-how to the Syrians (accusations levelled by the U.S. and Israel).

Reconsidering the Mandate

Due to the weaknesses of the present verification system, violating states are able to deny access to the IAEA and develop illicit weapons at will. They are further able to exploit the IAEA’s inability to identify whether states have turned a blind eye to the supply of sensitive technologies and know-how to state or non-state actors. Indeed, the IAEA’s function is to verify compliance with the NPT, but it lacks the ability to enforce the treaty’s legal requirements. Surprisingly, the NPT does not even oblige the IAEA to report to the United Nations Security Council.

Despite all of this, the IAEA can still be a force for good. While inspections are subject to state approvals, if the IAEA applied itself to the perpetual search for illicit activities and materials, the organization could provide value as a modest deterrent. Indeed, even when offending states deny inspections, it becomes clear to the international community that they are attempting to shroud their illicit activities and materials. This, in itself, is an unmistakable sign that further action is needed.

Thus, rather than making politicized statements that directly or indirectly address states’ noncompliance, the IAEA should return to its original mandate of technical analysis. For all its political failures, the IAEA has developed novel training methods, procedures, and technologies to assist inspectors when they are ultimately given access to suspected nuclear sites. In 2008, the organization upgraded and increased the number of its digital surveillance and radiation monitoring systems.

Get Out of the Way

The IAEA, due to its lack of authority and the unenforceable nature of the NPT, will never be able to stop illicit proliferators. It can, however, get out of the way of international efforts to force proliferators to halt the production of nuclear weapons, once it plays a role in identifying them. This means getting back to the basics of technical analysis, while leaving political assessments to others. Failing to do this will only undermine the mission of an organization that continues to lose the faith of the international community.

Barak M. Seener is the Greater Middle East Section Director for the Henry Jackson Society (U.K.). The author wishes to thank David Brummer for his research contribution.