Waking the Sleepy Nuclear Watchdog

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This article was written by my friend Kelsey Hartigan.

Facing problems like a defiant Iran that is now resolving to construct an additional 10 enrichment plants, a nuclear North Korea, and an uncooperative Syria, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has a difficult path ahead of it. The former head of the international nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, has left his successor, Yukiya Amano of Japan, with an underfunded and politically charged agency. The IAEA Amano is inheriting today is a far cry from the agency that Hans Blix bequeathed to ElBaradei twelve years ago. How Amano will deal with the files ElBaradei left on his desk is unclear--but we should all wish him luck. He will need it.

An early supporter of ElBaradei, Washington "discreetly influenced" the International Atomic Energy Agency's Board of Governors selection process in 1997 and helped win its support for ElBaradei as Director General. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists [subscription required] has described ElBaradei's 12-year tenure as an evolution from a "shy, circumspect Assistant Deputy Director-General from Egypt" to a "highly visible" Nobel Laureate who clashed with the Bush administration on more than one occasion.

ElBaradei's "complex legacy" will largely be determined by the outcome of pending disputes. The turning point in ElBaradei's tenure was the US invasion of Iraq. In March 2003, a month after then Secretary of State Colin Powell briefed the UN Security Council on Iraq's alleged WMD program, ElBaradei went before the Council and said that the US claims were false; Iraq had no centrifuge manufacturing plans and the British documents stating Iraq had sought to obtain uranium oxide from Africa had been forged. From that point forward, ElBaradei's Iraq experience and disdain for unwarranted unilateral action infiltrated nearly every other case that came across his desk--particularly Iran.

Criticized as being "soft" on Iran, ElBaradei was reluctant to utilize the full force of the IAEA and access suspect nuclear sites. In the wake of North Korea's withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Iraq debacle, ElBaradei likely saw swift action as being too rash--especially since Iran rounded out Bush's legendary "axis of evil." Nonetheless, the same criticisms were made with regard to Syria's nuclear program; too much time, not enough action.

How Amano will handle these same situations remains to be seen. As noted in the Time's brief bio of Amano, it seems that the Japanese diplomat will be less politically active than his predecessor. Former US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, has applauded Amano's apolitical outlook, which, coming from Bolton, doesn't necessarily inspire much confidence. Amano himself has made it clear that he intends to take a less political approach:

The IAEA's basic function is not political negotiation but implementing already agreed safeguards. Remarks by the director have political implications which, if made without properly assessing these implications, can be very dangerous.

Even so, Amano's election was marred by a divisive debate that widened the gap between developed and developing nations. Most developed countries, including the United States, supported Amano's bid and his ideas about depoliticizing the agency. A majority of developing nations, however, supported Abdul Minty, a South African with an advocacy streak that mirrored ElBaradei's. Amano edged out Minty by just one vote; an unusually close outcome for the traditionally unified Board of Governors.

If Amano wants stay out of the political rigmarole and stick to monitoring nuclear activities--more power to him. But with the Additional Protocol, which grants the IAEA more comprehensive inspection authorities, in force in just 93 countries, and restricted access to Iranian, Syrian, and North Korea facilities, Amano won't be able to avoid becoming embroiled in the same political disputes that mired his predecessor's term.

In his final month as director, ElBaradei spoke at an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. Venting anger built up over the years, ElBaradei balked at the disparity between the expectations of the IAEA and its severe lack of funding and authority: "In many cases, we are a sleepy watchdog because we don't have the authority."

As compliance with the IAEA's Additional Protocol is still voluntary, the agency can only inspect declared facilities through announced inspections. As a result, the IAEA is essentially relegated to knocking on doors and asking for permission to inspect these facilities. Moreover, with dilapidated labs and insufficient access to developed satellite monitoring areas, verification mechanisms like environmental sampling and satellite monitoring are typically supplied by outside parties, further stifling the agency's authority and independence. In ElBaradei's words: "I'm at the mercy of the suppliers." Such shortfalls seriously hamper the agency's ability to detect clandestine facilities, a dangerous loophole of the international nonproliferation regime.

Funding is another major issue. To put this in perspective: The New York State Police Department had a $672 million budget for the 2008/2009 fiscal year. That same year, the IAEA had a regular budget of approximately $415 million. The mere fact that the budget of a state police force is comparable--let alone more than 50% larger--than that of the international body which is responsible for ensuring that the nuclear work and materials in 150 countries is not used to build nuclear weapons should indicate the severity of the IAEA's financial situation.

Will Amano be forced to pick pocket the NY State Police?

Cash-strapped or not, Amano will have to deal with these same realities as he takes on the Iranian, North Korean, and Syrian programs--to name just the headline challenges. A recent editorial in the LA Times offers an interesting--though unrealistic--perspective on how Iran should be dealt with and argues that because of the negotiations' political nature, the IAEA should stay out of the talks.

Some observers say that Iran has the technical capacity to develop a bomb, and the world should accept that and focus on preventing Tehran from taking the next step. Others say we need stronger inspection regimes for the IAEA and stiffer penalties for those found to be in violation of the nonproliferation treaty. Still others say that disarmament by the nuclear powers would ease the appetites of nuclear have-nots.

Our position is that a nuclear-armed Iran would be destabilizing for the region and the world and must be avoided if at all possible. But as stated in "Iran: Where We Are Today," a staff report to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the answer to Iran's nuclear ambitions "is not technical but political." The nuclear dispute reflects distrust between Iran and the United States, and the solution must be negotiated by political leaders--not the IAEA.

There is no doubting the underlying political characteristics of the Iranian situation, but excluding the IAEA from negotiations will only serve to further weaken the watchdog, which already suffers from a lack of power and financial backing. The IAEA was set up as an "Atoms for Peace" agency in 1957 and then asked in 1970 to enforce the safeguards system set up by the NPT. Iran has breached those safeguards and abused its supposedly civilian program--if the IAEA is not allowed to help find a solution it will only undercut the IAEA's international status as the top nuclear authority. The IAEA can help ease political sensitivities and provide impartial information and suggestions. For that to happen, it must be given the authority and resources necessary for it to finally do its job. If Amano is serious about taking a less political approach, Iran is the perfect opportunity to implement his strategy.