An expert's point of view on a current event.

A Radioactive Situation

As Yukiya Amano takes the helm at the International Atomic Energy Agency, he must contend with escalating conflicts in Iran and Syria, sharp divides among nations on the Board of Governors -- and the long shadow cast by his predecessor.

By , a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Strategists in the United States and Iran are now wrestling with a question central to their high-stakes game of nuclear chicken: Who is Yukiya Amano?

Strategists in the United States and Iran are now wrestling with a question central to their high-stakes game of nuclear chicken: Who is Yukiya Amano?

At this point, both sides know little more than the contents of his resume: Amano, a Japanese career diplomat, is the successor of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei. After 12 increasingly high-profile years at the helm of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), ElBaradei departed the organization at the end of November. Unlike ElBaradei, who took about four years to begin making significant changes as director general, Amano may have to make his own mark at the IAEA very soon, because he will be forced to grapple with a range of challenges ElBaradei left behind: unresolved flashpoints in Iran and Syria, infighting among the staff, and political gridlock dividing the nations that sit on the organization’s ruling body, the Board of Governors.

The world will be watching carefully. Amano was elected this July to succeed ElBaradei as director general by a single-vote majority of the 35-member board. Amano’s support came from advanced, largely Western, powers. In throwing their weight behind Amano, these countries aimed to trim back the activist political agenda that ElBaradei had advanced over the last decade.

An early indicator of how far Amano is willing to depart from his predecessor’s approach will come in mid-February, when he will finish drafting reports on Iran and Syria for the board.

When it comes to Iran, the United States and some other advanced nuclear powers will push Amano to reverse what they saw as ElBaradei’s propensity for dither and delay. The IAEA was aware, as far back as 2002, that Iran was clandestinely pursuing an ambitious uranium enrichment project. By mid-2003, the IAEA had proven that Iran misled the organization for nearly two decades about the scope of its nuclear program. But it wasn’t until 2006 that the Board of Governors cited Iran for non-compliance of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), and referred the violations to the U.N. Security Council.

U.S. diplomats representing the Bush administration asserted at the time that ElBaradei failed to uphold the IAEA’s standards for compliance in the Iran case, thereby denting the IAEA’s credibility. According to IAEA officials, however, the European Union — not ElBaradei — was primarily responsible for delays in citing Iran for violations of its safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Beginning in 2003, EU diplomats tried to solve the budding crisis by trying to cooperate with Iran, promising not to refer the Islamic Republic to the Security Council for possible sanctions if the regime agreed to halt its centrifuge enrichment program. Ultimately, the EU initiative failed.

Some IAEA officials admit that ElBaradei did not embrace diplomatic efforts to sanction Iran. However, they argue that ElBaradei resisted calls to escalate the standoff in order to prevent the Bush administration from going to war. In media interviews in 2007 and 2009, respectively, ElBaradei openly warned of "war drums" beaten by U.S. and Israel officials, "basically saying the solution is to bomb Iran," and asserted that belligerent US policy toward Tehran had prevented resolution of the Iran nuclear issue.

Tension between the United States and the IAEA over Iran persisted until the end of Bush’s second term. But as ElBaradei’s tenure drew to a close, his approach created rifts even among his own staff in the Secretariat, the IAEA’s executive office.

Olli Heinonen, the head of the Department of Safeguards and the man responsible for the Iran probe, was the most prominent dissenter. Heinonen compiled a dossier of information strongly suggesting that Iran had been secretly researching nuclear weapons for years, in parallel with its uranium enrichment program. As Heinonen’s confidence in the accuracy of his information grew, he increasingly crossed wires with the small bevy of diplomats in the IAEA’s Department of External Relations and Policy Coordination (EXPO). Safeguards officials blamed EXPO for urging ElBaradei to leave data from the damning weapons research dossier out of his reports to the board.

In September, as the conflict between EXPO and Safeguards raged on, some of the member states that had elected Amano in July considered urging ElBaradei to include information from the weapons research dossier in his very last report to the board in late November. Doing so, they hoped, would make it easier for Amano to continue the IAEA’s work on Iran.

These considerations were sidetracked in October when, with ElBaradei’s encouragement, the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany began negotiating with Iran over a new gambit to deescalate the crisis: a proposal to supply Iran with fabricated fuel for a small medical isotope-producing reactor, in exchange for the removal of Iran’s domestically produced enriched uranium to a location outside the country. In part so as not to upset these delicate negotiations, the weapons research file, which Iran claims is a forgery, was kept under lock and key at the Department of Safeguards. A summary report by Heinonen has not been submitted to the board and — so far — is not considered an official IAEA document. ElBaradei suggested in public statements that the IAEA had doubts about the authenticity of the information on "alleged weapons studies" by Iran. How the IAEA moves forward on this dossier will be up to Amano.

Iran is not the only front where Amano will be under pressure to defend the IAEA’s prerogatives and credibility. His report on Syria could also reignite an issue about which ElBaradei’s critics charge that he failed to enforce international nonproliferation standards and obligations.

This controversy dates back to September 2007, when Israeli jets bombed an installation at a site in northern Syria called al-Kibar. In early 2008, the United States claimed, citing detailed photography of the installation’s interior and exterior, that the destroyed plant was a nearly finished nuclear reactor. Since then, the IAEA has been investigating this allegation.

Going back to mid-2008, some Western diplomats and nonproliferation experts have charged that ElBaradei did not make use of the IAEA’s established legal authority in pursuing allegations against Syria.

Under ElBaradei there was no internal consensus on this issue. Personnel at the IAEA’s Office of Legal Affairs believed that, under Syria’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA, the IAEA has the right to request a "special inspection" to get access to data and locations that Syria had previously not declared to the IAEA to be related to its nuclear activities. Such a request has been made only twice — both times successfully — in the IAEA’s history. But ElBaradei, with the support of EXPO, never requested such an inspection in Syria. As in the case of Iran, ElBaradei’s reasons for not pushing Syria to the brink appear to have been guided by diplomatic considerations outside the confines of his safeguards mandate.

In September 2008, a senior EXPO official said that the IAEA was disinclined to seek a special inspection because the IAEA had no information suggesting that Syria had failed to declare any nuclear material to the IAEA, as it is required to do under its NPT safeguards agreement. But shortly thereafter, the Department of Safeguards discovered particles of chemically processed uranium in Syrian soil samples, a finding that appeared to corroborate the allegation that Syria had violated its agreement. However, ElBaradei and EXPO were not keen to take any provocative actions that might disrupt the diplomatic efforts of Turkey, EU states, and Israel to pry Syria away from Iran and Hezbollah.

They were also wary that a special inspection request, if denied by Syria, would send the matter to the Board of Governors, which would be intensely divided on how to proceed further. If Syria refused to comply with a special inspection request urged by the United States or other Western board members, the next logical step would be for these states to press for a board finding of noncompliance by Syria. Such a determination would raise the prospect — as in the case of Iran in 2006 — that the matter would be referred to the Security Council, and that it would consider imposing sanctions on Syria. Many nonaligned and developing member states, especially Arab and Muslim countries, would object to such a referral.

Today, efforts at engaging Iran appear to be stalled, while Syria continues to stonewall the IAEA’s investigation. As Amano addresses these challenges, he will have to pay careful attention to the recent divide that has emerged between the developing and non-aligned countries on the Board of Governors, and the industrialized states that were responsible for his election. Developing nations look to the IAEA to protect their right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful means, and traditionally oppose ambitious programs which would increase their financial obligations. To this end, they supported Abdul Samad Minty, a South African diplomat, during the 2009 election campaign. Advanced nuclear states endorsed Amano hoping that he would reverse what they see as the politicization of the IAEA that occurred under ElBaradei, and fulfil the IAEA’s verification mandate to the letter.

Beginning right after his July election, Amano has diligently attempted to win over the countries that opposed him. His initial statements aimed to assure developing countries that he would heed their concerns, and that the advanced states which supported him would not curb their access to nuclear technology or impose additional safeguards burdens. In prepared remarks on Dec. 9, he signalled that he would strictly keep to the IAEA’s script in dealing with allegations of nonproliferation transgressions. "I see my role as being to ensure that safeguards agreements are concluded and fully implemented, to provide member states with factual and objective information and analysis, and to act in accordance with relevant resolutions of the U.N. Security Council and the agency’s Board of Governors," he said.

His statement also emphasized the IAEA’s work on issues such as food security, clean water, health care, cancer control, and assistance in developing nuclear power — all issues near and dear to the hearts of the board members who did not support Amano in July. It is also no coincidence that Amano’s first visit to a member state, in December, was to Nigeria.

As was the case when the Bush administration’s actions directly affected ElBaradei’s approach to safeguards-related conflicts, the policies of U.S. President Barack Obama will strongly impact Amano’s four-year tenure. Should Obama now back off his willingness, displayed throughout 2009, to negotiate with Iran, the IAEA and Amano will come under renewed U.S. pressure to demonstrate firmness in spelling out safeguards noncompliance.

After Amano’s election but before he took office, officials from several Western states said these states would urge him to make personnel changes — particularly at EXPO — to dismantle the network of aides who had supported ElBaradei and were responsible, in their view, for the IAEA Secretariat’s failure to pursue nonproliferation transgressions by Iran and Syria. Pressure on Amano to make key staff changes could be renewed if Obama pursues a more confrontational course with Iran.

So far, however, Amano has made no dramatic interventions in personnel matters.  ElBaradei’s hand-picked aides at EXPO and in a few other key positions remain in place. Unlike high-ranking U.S. government appointees, senior IAEA staff are civil servants who stay on even when the agency’s leadership changes.

As Amano attempts to step out of the long shadow cast by ElBaradei, he will be judged by his ability to re-establish the tradition of consensual governance that characterized the IAEA during most of its half century of existence. This consensus was seriously eroded during the Bush administration, whose propensity for unilateral action polarized member states. Repairing the damage will be no easy task: When Amano submits his two reports on Iran and Syria in February, he will likely face a Western alliance that is quickly losing patience with what it believes have been good-faith negotiations to reach an equitable solution to these countries’ disputes with the international community. One thing, however, is certain: As Amano responds to these challenges, the world will begin to discover who he really is.

Mark Hibbs is a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Twitter: @MarkHibbsCEIP

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