How to be a Nuclear Watchdog

The International Atomic Energy Agency must sharpen its fact-gathering tools, present unvarnished reports, and then leave enforcement to states and the U.N. Security Council.

By , vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

TO: Mohamed ElBaradei - Director General, IAEA

TO: Mohamed ElBaradei – Director General, IAEA

FROM: George Perkovich

RE: Handling Radioactive Facts

Let’s be honest. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is not a household name. Many political leaders and pundits still garble the agency’s abbreviation. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the importance of the agency’s work. Nuclear proliferation is a growing menace. The war in Iraq has revealed the difficulty of preventive wars of disarmament and thereby underscored the critical role the Vienna-based agency must play. Still, its recent record is mixed. Weak safeguards allowed Iraq to advance its nuclear-weapon program before the 1991 war, but agency vigilance in the 1990s — authorized and supported by the U.N. Security Council — ultimately helped eviscerate Iraq’s nuclear program. IAEA inspectors discovered North Korea’s secret, illegal diversion of plutonium for nuclear weapons in 1992 and more recently helped expose a long history of Iran’s illicit attempts to create a nuclear-weapons capability.

The world’s security now depends more on the IAEA than ever before. The agency has grown stronger under your leadership, but a confusing mandate created by states, limited investigative procedures, and an occassional aversion to publicizing unpleasant facts sometimes hamstring the agency. Your challenge, Mr. Director General, is to uncover and expose facts so plainly that states cannot duck the need to reform the rules safeguarding nuclear technology.

The IAEA’s Split Personality
Your agency was born with an identity crisis. Developing countries supported the agency’s establishment, based on the notion that the IAEA exists to spread the benefits of nuclear technology around the world. The agency’s schizophrenia was encoded during the negotiation of its statute, following U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous 1953 "Atoms for Peace" speech. Homi Bhabha, the charismatic leader of India’s emerging nuclear program, marshaled anticolonial concerns to help ensure that IAEA rules would not prevent new countries from acquiring the capability to produce nuclear weapons altogether.

You now face Bhabha’s spirit in Iran, and possibly soon in Egypt, South Korea, and other countries. Iran genuinely resists what it sees as U.S.-led nuclear colonialism, and it insists on its right to produce highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium that it claims will be used only for peaceful purposes. Iran and other countries, including Brazil, South Africa, and Malaysia, downplay the world’s valid concern that technology acquired today could be used for non-peaceful purposes tomorrow.

The tension stems from a clash between the nuclear haves and have-nots. The have-nots won’t endorse tougher nonproliferation rules if the countries with nuclear weapons don’t do more to dismantle their arsenals. The haves, including the United States, won’t agree to expand cooperation in nuclear-power development if the non-nuclear-weapon states don’t agree to firm up the rules.

Just the Facts
It’s not your job to resolve this tension. The IAEA should be neither a defender nor a prosecutor. Rather, you should be the world’s leading nuclear fact-gatherer — one not diverted or muzzled by concerns over where the facts might lead. The Bush administration’s political brutalization of international inspectors in the run-up to the Iraq war, and the subsequent evidence that Washington was wrong, make it difficult for you to remain neutral. Many capitals are so resistant to the current administration’s bullying that they urge you to cook the books to produce reports that will forestall another Iraq-style showdown. But you must resist and let the facts speak for themselves.

Unfortunately, some of the agency’s recent work gives the appearance of political trimming. Your recent reports on Iran have neglected to mention by name countries that supplied Iran’s nuclear capabilities, such as China and Pakistan. Then there was the ill-advised political judgment in your November 2003 report on Iran in which you opined that there was "no evidence that the previously undeclared nuclear activities and material" documented by agency investigators "was related to a nuclear weapon program." That line was probably intended to keep Tehran from cutting off further inspections and withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It may have been diplomatically shrewd, but it wasn’t a statement of fact.

If you confine yourself to collecting and reporting facts with uncompromising vigor, leaving the interpretation to the Board of Governors, individual states, and the U.N. Security Council, you will minimize political controversy directed at the agency. As important, you will force member states and the Security Council to stop shirking their responsibilities for enforcement, as they did in 2002 when the agency reported North Korea’s treaty noncompliance, but the Security Council, including the United States, did nothing. If other states don’t like the way the United States pursues enforcement, they should do it themselves, not dump the hardest problems on the IAEA. And if China and Russia want to avoid having the Security Council authorize binding sanctions against states that break international rules, for fear their own behavior could be sanctionable someday, don’t let them create the impression that it is the IAEA that is weak. Make the facts so clear that coalitions of the willing must then resolve crises, as Britain, France, and Germany are attempting with Iran. Your courage in taking slings and arrows from all sides is admirable. But international security ultimately requires states to take the lead.

Here are several suggestions for strengthening the agency:

  • Document Evasive Behavior: Your staff is not currently required to report attempts to postpone or evade inspections to the Board of Governors. Similarly, those who verify the records that states keep of their nuclear activities and material stockpiles are not required to report incomplete declarations of nuclear activities. You should change this practice and push for more comprehensive and transparent reporting that will keep the burden of clarifying unanswered questions on the state involved. The agency cannot verify a state’s commitment to pursue only peaceful uses of nuclear technology if it does not record all attempts to frustrate verification.
  • Talk to People, Not Just Machines: Interviews with expert personnel in countries subject to inspection should be routine. No one expects true confessions, but inconsistencies, puzzling explanations, and other hints might emerge. Better to establish and reinforce the practice of interviews now than to have to fight for it during a crisis, as happened with Iraq in 2002. Today, your investigators are often limited to trying to make machines, such as centrifuges, "talk" by assessing the residues left on them. That’s akin to a detective doing an investigation without interviewing the eyewitnesses. Technical investigations, such as analyzing air and soil samples, can work brilliantly, but centrifuges that haven’t been used to produce bomb materials cannot tell you they won’t be. The more you can get inside people’s heads, the fuller the picture of a state’s nuclear activities you can draw.
  • Widen the Lens: Just as gunpowder is only part of what makes guns dangerous, so, too, is fissile material only part of what makes nuclear weapons. The IAEA must look beyond nuclear materials and investigate whether unauthorized states or individuals are designing and developing the components required to detonate a nuclear weapon. This technology includes conventional high explosives, lenses to shape the shock waves of such explosives, specialized cameras to record tests, and facilities to conduct experiments. The Al Qaqaa explosives that notoriously went missing in Iraq are just one example of nonnuclear material that must be safeguarded. Iran has a military complex at Parchin with facilities that are used to design and test high explosives of this sort. In November, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell alleged that Iran is developing missiles to carry a nuclear warhead. If the Bush administration can produce credible evidence, the agency should scrutinize it. The IAEA’s mandate does not explicitly authorize (or forbid) investigations of activities not directly related to nuclear materials. But you should assume this role by deploying experts on your staff to inspect possible weaponization sites in Iran and other countries in question. If they resist, tell the world.
  • Expose Nuclear Markets: Make your experts available to any state concerned that individuals or commercial entities under its sovereignty are engaged in illicit nuclear cooperation. The world was shocked by the revelation that Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan was clandestinely operating a "nuclear Wal-Mart" that provided weapon designs and fuel-production technology to Libya, Iran, North Korea, and perhaps other states. More than two dozen individuals and companies formed this network, operating in, among other places, Germany, Malaysia, South Africa, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Khan’s network will not be the last. The IAEA’s mandate technically does not authorize it to investigate these networks, but your agency has the best expertise to do so. South Africa, for example, needed agency experts to analyze equipment it discovered after arresting one of Khan’s associates. As the agency conducts its interviews, ask around about procurement networks and build databases for investigating rumored operators on the black market. If you come up with leads or detect alarming patterns, let governments know about suspicious individuals, businesses, or front entities that may be involved in nuclear commerce.

Set the Stage for New Rules
Officials in the United States and in other countries with nuclear weapons resist the suggestion that their arsenals impede efforts to strengthen nonproliferation, and they want you to stop saying otherwise. But you have been getting earfuls of complaints from states that will not consider changes in nuclear rules unless the nuclear weapons states fulfill their disarmament obligations. There is a connection, and you are right to highlight it. Clearly, new rules are needed to ensure the dual international interests of expanding nuclear-power generation while preventing weapons proliferation. Helping to create these rules may do more to advance your agency’s mission than anything else you might accomplish.

But, to spark a serious dialogue, you must first find a forum to host it. The U.N. Security Council is the ultimate enforcement body for nonproliferation, but it is ill-suited to deal with the economic, legal, and technical complexities of the nuclear industry. The Group of Eight industrialized countries is too unrepresentative to enjoy political legitimacy throughout the world. The 189 parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meet every five years, but these gatherings are unwieldy and unfocused. Besides, the NPT does not include India, Israel, or Pakistan, countries that must be included for any effort to be meaningful.

What is needed is a new ad hoc forum that would be politically and economically representative, but small enough to manage. There are the makings of a grand bargain. Nonnuclear states that agree to end the expansion of nationally owned and operated uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing could be guaranteed cost-effective nuclear fuel services, including spent-fuel management and waste disposal. If the initial group reached agreement, it would then invite other states to join. If the initiative fails, it will not jeopardize an existing structure or treaty-based regime; if it succeeds, it will resolve momentous issues that formal institutions have been unable to tackle.

You have quietly planted the seed for such an initiative by creating an Expert Group on possible multinational approaches to controlling uranium enrichment and plutonium separation. This group hopes to agree in early 2005 on a statement of pros and cons regarding changing the rules that manage nuclear fuel-supply capabilities. Following the NPT’s meeting in May, you should make a self-effacing call for global leaders to fill this rule-making vacuum. Find someone to donate a chateau in the Austrian countryside, invite the heads of state of Brazil, Britain, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, and the United States to send personal emissaries to consider how to advance the reform agenda. These states include leading nuclear-fuel producers, investors in nuclear power, and permanent or aspiring members of the U.N. Security Council. Their leaders are the ones who must reconcile the promises and the risks inherent in nuclear technology in the 21st century. Your legacy would be to hold them accountable, preside over an opening ceremony, and leave them to succeed or fail in front of the world.

George Perkovich is the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini chair as well as vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Twitter: @PerkovichG

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