General Conference kicks off

On Monday 20 September, officials from International Atomic Energy Agency member states convened in Vienna for the 54th General Conference of the international body. The annual meeting is tasked with approving the Agency’s programme of work and its budget and deciding on other matters brought before it by the Board of Governors, director-general or member states. Discussions within the conference reflect national positions on a variety of issues related to nuclear technology including nuclear verification, safety and security of nuclear materials and international technical cooperation on nuclear issues.

During the opening session, the Agency’s director-general, Yukia Amano, delivered a statement outlining the Agency’s work over the ten months since his entry into office in December last year and future challenges for agency. Mr Amano emphasised the importance of pursuing the Agency’s mandate in a ‘balanced manner.’ He said he is trying to change the widespread perception of the agency as exclusively a ‘nuclear watchdog’ only concerned with nuclear inspections and verification. As he put it, this ‘does not do justice to our extensive activities in other areas’ such as nuclear energy and technical cooperation.

In his speech, the director-general celebrated the fact that the Agency’s Additional Protocols are now in force in 102 countries. He emphasised the important role the Additional Protocols play as an ‘essential tool’ for the Agency to be able to credibly verify not only the non-diversion of declared nuclear material but also the absence of undeclared material and activities. Mr Amano also announced the establishment of a new office of Safeguards and Analytical Services within the IAEA’s Department of Safeguards. He also said that Construction of the Clean Laboratory at the Agency’s laboratory complex in Siebensdorf got underway in January, he said further.

With regard to the implementation of Agency safeguards, particularly with reference to Iran and Syria, the director-general stated that his approach from the beginning has been that safeguards agreements between member states and the Agency, and other relevant obligations, should be ‘implemented fully.’ He described the nuclear programme of North Korea, unsafeguarded since 2002, as a matter of ‘serious concern.’

On the proposed nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East, Mr Amano reported that there has been no ‘convergence of views’ among regional states on convening a forum on the relevance of the experience of other NWFZs for establishing such a zone in the Middle East. He reported that no progress has yet been achieved. On another related resolution adopted at the General Conference last year regarding Israeli nuclear capabilities, Mr Amano noted that he has sought the views of all member states, received 44 replies, and held consultations with representatives of concerned members – especially those in the region.

A noteworthy point in Amano’s speech related to a potential role for the agency in the verification of nuclear disarmament. The last time the Agency played an active role in that regards was during the trilateral initiative between 1996-2002 when the technical, legal and financial issues associated with IAEA verification of weapon-origin fissile material in the Russian Federation and the United States were investigated. In his speech, Mr Amano emphasised that ‘credible verification systems are vital for nuclear disarmament efforts.’ He also saw an important contribution to the Agency to the implementation of nuclear disarmament. He mentioned that the Agency recently received a joint letter from the Russian minister for foreign affairs, Sergey Lavrov, and the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, ‘requesting IAEA assistance to independently verify implementation of their agreement on the disposition of plutonium no longer required for defence purposes.’

In addition to the Director General, several states took the floor to give their national statements. Significantly, both Iran and the US were among states addressing the General Conference on the first day. Iran’s statement, delivered by Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Iran Atomic Organization, included strong criticism of the IAEA for its recent report on the country’s nuclear programme, which it said was not based on ‘impartiality and fairness’. And as a result, said Mr Salehi, the Agency had left itself ‘no room but to reflect the notion of political influence exerted by certain powers in the decision-making trends of this unique international technical body.’ The statement is not the first time Iran has accused the Agency of bowing to political interference since the report in question – which again raised concerns over the nature of the Iranian nuclear programme – was released on 6 September. Last week, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, argued in a letter to the Agency that the report appeared to have been influenced by ‘outside pressures’.

In terms of ‘outside pressures,’ the US no doubt figures highly in Iranian calculations.  As the US Secretary of Energy, Stephen Chu, declared in his remarks to the hall here yesterday: ‘Iran’s intransigence represents a challenge to the rules that all countries must adhere to…Iran must do what it has so far failed to do – meet its obligations and ensure the rest of the world of the peaceful nature of its intentions.’ There is a ‘broad and growing international consensus,’ Mr Chu said, ‘that will hold Iran accountable if it continues its defiance.’ On Iran and Syria, ‘we encourage the Agency to make full use of existing authorities’, said Mr Chu – a gently worded call for a special inspection it would seem, an access right that the IAEA has so far been hesitant to invoke in either case. The latest IAEA report on Syria, where an Israeli air strike in 2007 destroyed what is widely thought to have been a fledgling nuclear reactor, warned that evidence at the site was degrading with the passage of time.

On the safeguards system more broadly, the IAEA is ‘facing a growing imbalance between workload and resources’, said Mr Chu. And in line with President Obama’s campaign pledge to double the Agency’s budget, noted that the US supports a ‘significant increase’ in IAEA regular funding.

Characteristically, the US also re-stressed the value of the IAEA Additional Protocol (AP) as a tool for enhancing its verification abilities. Introduced in 1997 as an optional supplement to the NPT-mandated safeguards agreements (after the inadequacy of those agreements came to light in the wake of the Gulf War), APs are now in force in 102 as mentioned earlier. Opinions on the AP, particularly on the degree to which it should be seen as a requirement for NPT parties, differ widely however. In remarks that echo those of the Non-Aligned Movement at the May 2010 NPT Review Conference in New York, Iran (which resists implementation of the AP), stressed here yesterday that it is ‘utterly important to differentiate between the safeguards commitment of member states and the confidence-building measures made on a voluntary basis.’