Two visions – one organization

It is never easy to compare two speeches. Especially if one is made by a seasoned diplomat with 12 years of leading the IAEA under his belt, and the other is made by a Director-General-elect eager to follow in his footsteps.

The IAEA is a difficult organisation to run. The Director-General answers to some 150 member states, and is responsible for a multinational staff, several thousand heads strong. The IAEA’s mission is diverse. It has to please nuclear workers asking for better codes on safety and management. It has to supply technical assistance to those member states who seek to develop their nuclear industry. And it has to make sure that nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes. It does all this, and more, on a shoestring budget, restricted by harsh staff policies, and faced with an emerging disconnect between what states demand, and the organisation itself can possibly supply.

It is an economic law that one way to increase supply is to reduce marginal costs. For many years, the IAEA has been forced to do this. ElBaradei’s statement yesterday, that safeguards has undergone a “transformation” should be read in that light. He correctly pointed out that the Agency “have moved beyond simple verification of declared nuclear material at declared facilities to assessing information on a State´s entire nuclear programme and, most importantly, verifying the absence of undeclared activities”. This qualitative improvement has been brought about by a combination of member states’ awareness of the problem of undeclared nuclear fuel cycles, but also by member states’ wish to get more while paying less.

‘Integrated safeguards’ is a simple scheme trying to combine the measures under the comprehensive safeguards agreement with the measures of the additional protocol. The rationale is straightforward: if the IAEA can draw a conclusion that there is no undeclared activities in a state, it can move towards reducing the routine inspection effort in that state. The idea is that member states will get the same assurance as before, but at a lesser cost. At present, 40 states are implementing ‘integrated safeguards’. However, so far, member states have seen no particular savings. There may be many reasons for this: foremost that it is a new concept, and that start-up costs may be high. But some members are starting to complain. One reason why European members were sceptical to a drastic increase in the IAEA’s safeguards budget was this: “we were supposed to pay less, so why are we now paying more?”

ElBaradei pointed out that “universal adherence by all non-nuclear-weapon States to comprehensive safeguards agreements and additional protocols is a prerequisite for an effective verification and non-proliferation system.” This is something the IAEA have been pushing ever since the conclusion of project 93+2 back in the early 1990s. It is frustrating, after all, to have produced a shiny new sports-car only to find that not everyone wants it. The Additional Protocol is important since it represents the move from the old accountancy-based safeguards system to a leaner, newer, information driven safeguards regime. The Additional Protocol does provide additional confidence that nuclear material is not used for nefarious purposes. And it is very effective, which was proved by IAEA verification activities in Iran while that country provisionally applied it.

ElBaradei wants to go further, however. In his final speech to the General Conference, he pointed towards a lacuna in the safeguards regime, highlighted by VERTIC a couple of years ago. ElBaradei said, “although the Agency´s verification mandate is centred on nuclear material, to preclude the possibility of undeclared nuclear material and activities in a country, it may be necessary for us to pursue alleged weaponization activities”. Dr. ElBaradei could not have said this while he was Director-General, since this is the hottest potato of them all. Investigations into weaponization cannot be made through accountancy, which means that the IAEA needs to employ methods similar to those used by law enforcement: interviews, forensics and reliance on member-state supplied intelligence. For some members, this is clearly a bridge too far.

Intrusive investigations lead to controversy. Dr. ElBaradei recognizes this in his speech. He highlighted that “we must let diplomacy and thorough verification take their course, however lengthy and tiresome the process might be. We need to carefully assess the veracity of intelligence information so as not to let verification turn into a witch hunt.” The latter point is extremely important, and relates both to the way the IAEA safeguards its independence and the way the organisation handles potentially sensitive information.

Anyone who has been involved in traditional law enforcement knows that evidence collection, collation and analysis requires straddling a fine line between sharing and withholding information from the general public. Without the public, the police may find itself without leads. The key is to ensure a strict chain of custody of collected information and, naturally, to refuse outside influence when it is time to draw conclusions. The worst sin of any investigator is to see too much in the evidence. So far, the IAEA has managed to maintain its impartiality, but it cannot allow itself to lower its guard.

Finally, the Director-General pointed out that the IAEA cannot do its job in isolation. It has to have proper backing by the UN Security Council. ElBaradei identified the problem: “The Council needs to develop a comprehensive compliance mechanism that does not rely only on sanctions, which too often hurt the vulnerable and the innocent”. But he clearly has not figured out the solution. I am personally looking forward to his future thoughts on this, and whether he is hinting at the concept of a “standing resolution” often discussed in Washington DC.

Ambassador Yukiya Amano also mentioned safeguards in his inaugural address to the General Conference. His speech was understandably more measured. He said that the membership needs to “universalizing and further strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime, especially the Agency’s safeguards system”, but fell short of presenting any ideas of how this might be done. He also said that “safeguards agreements with states must be implemented fully, professionally, and impartially with the full cooperation from all the states concerned”, which is an obvious truth.

Those seeking anything inspiring from the incoming DG was probably slightly disappointed. But they should bear in mind before they cast judgement that the acceptance speech is neither the time nor the place to roll out grand initiatives. The Director-Generals have traditionally reserved this to their first “own” General Conference.

We will likely hear more from Ambassador Amano at the 54th General Conference next year.

One comment

  1. Your assertion that the IAEA has been objective in its treatment of verificatin issues does not hold up in the case of Iran. As I reported this week the IAEA has refused even to acknowledge publicly that Iran has raised very substantive issues about the provenance of the “alleged studies” documents, and it continues to ignore the fact that one of the document deemed central to the case has been discredited by Iran’s production of the original document. Furthermore, the Agency simply has not given any indication that it has rigorously researched the question of the authenticity of the documents.

    My report on the pronounced tilt in IAEA’s treatment of the issue toward those whose interest lie in keeping Iran in the dock can be found at

    I urge you to read the report and reconsider your assessment of this question.

    Gareth Porter
    Independent investigative journalist and historian

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