This past week, Yukiya Amano, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), cautioned its Board of Governors about Iran’s refusal to allow inspectors into the Parchin nuclear facility site. “It is a matter of concern that activities which have taken place since February 2012…will have an adverse impact on our ability to undertake effective verification there,” Amano warned. His plea for Iran to grant the UN nuclear watchdog unfettered access echoed comments from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during a recent visit to Tehran.

Since its establishment in 1957, the IAEA has become the critical global governance mechanism for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. It does this principally by applying nuclear safeguards, which involve nuclear auditing, inspections, and on-site and remote monitoring, to detect whether nuclear materials and facilities designated for peaceful purposes are being diverted to weapons programs. In fulfilling the original promise of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace concept, which inspired the creation of the IAEA, the agency also provides assistance in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, especially to developing countries.

Since the 9/11 attacks on the United States, however, the IAEA has increasingly concerned itself with nuclear security measures, designed to prevent nuclear materials and facilities from falling into the hands of terrorists. To that end, it has assisted in the repatriation of plutonium and highly-enriched uranium—bomb materials—from reactors and other locations in non-nuclear weapon states. Yet none of these activities imply an IAEA role in achieving the agency’s stated goal: global nuclear disarmament.

Safeguarding the future

The future of the IAEA is inextricably bound up in the nuclear disarmament question. However, the IAEA’s statute does give the agency a role in nuclear disarmament—if asked.

The agency may apply safeguards to any nuclear materials or facilities at the request of any member state or states. It could therefore, perfectly legally, be involved in verifying that nuclear material had been removed irreversibly from nuclear weapons during a global nuclear disarmament process. In fact, some of its past safeguarding activities have provided it with the tools and experience to carry out such tasks.

The IAEA assisted with and verified Iraq’s divestiture of its nuclear weapons capability; confirmed South Africa’s voluntary nuclear disarmament; and was involved in verifying North Korea’s short-lived disarmament undertakings. In the case of Iran, the IAEA has, in fulfilling its obligations to the UN Security Council, begun concerning itself with weaponization activities—an area the agency had previously regarded as beyond its purview.

Perhaps most significantly of all, the agency is preparing to be involved in verifying excess, non-classified forms of nuclear material resulting from U.S. and Russian bilateral nuclear weapon cuts. The agency has also been quietly laying the ground for staking its claim to be the verification agency for a future fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT), although it must be careful to avoid appearing too presumptuous and riling Pakistan and other states that oppose an FMCT.

A history of disarmament

The earliest conceptions of an organization along the lines of the IAEA, in the 1946 Acheson-Lilienthal and Baruch plans, envisaged that it would take control of all nuclear materials (even uranium) once the original nuclear weapon states—the United States and the Soviet Union—had disarmed. It would thereafter apply universal safeguards to ensure that no state acquired nuclear weapons again.

Once it became clear that the Americans and Soviets had no intention of disarming, the IAEA was mandated to ensure only that no additional nuclear weapon states emerged. Its statute gives it no explicit role in either bringing about or verifying nuclear disarmament. By the time the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) committed most states to abjuring nuclear weapons, three more states possessed them: China, France, and the United Kingdom. Three more states—India, Israel, and Pakistan—would never join the treaty and would go on to acquire the bomb.

The Non-Proliferation Struggle

The NPT only gave the IAEA the role of verifying the legally binding obligations of its non-nuclear weapon parties never to acquire nuclear weapons. Yet over the past decades, the agency has become adept at doing so, often in response to major cases of non-compliance: Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Syria. The NPT also offered the agency no role in verifying compliance with its most contentious provision, Article VI, which requires parties to negotiate nuclear disarmament in “good faith.”

Even if it had done so, the article is so vague and promises so little as to be impossible to verify. Moreover, the six nuclear weapon states that are NPT parties not likely to have been willing to disarm, while at least three other states with nuclear weapons remained outside the treaty. Various NPT review conferences have, by consensus, embellished and made more specific the Article VI commitment to nuclear disarmament, but these are only politically binding and have again given the IAEA no role.

However, this did not stop former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei from calling for nuclear disarmament on the grounds that the agency could not continue imposing an increasing verification burden on those without nuclear weapons forever. Meanwhile, the nuclear weapon states were free to maintain, or even worse, improve and increase their arsenals.

Although technically going beyond his mandate, ElBaradei made a valid point. The agency’s governing bodies, the general conference and board of governors, are increasingly wracked with dissension between the nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” over the issue of nuclear disarmament.

The developing countries, led by the more radical members of the nonaligned movement such as Algeria, Cuba, Iran, Syria and Venezuela, use the lack of movement toward nuclear disarmament as a pretext to oppose any strengthening of nuclear safeguards or even of nuclear security measures. Iran has exploited the issue to divert attention from its longstanding violation of its nuclear safeguards agreement with the IAEA under the NPT.

All this has the potential to affect the IAEA’s longstanding reputation as a technically oriented organization devoted to impartial verification of non-proliferation commitments.

Still, the IAEA and supportive member states can ensure that the agency thinks strategically about its function, while quietly preparing for a role in nuclear disarmament. If and when nuclear disarmament is achieved, the agency would be perfectly positioned to be a key verification authority. After all, at that point, all remaining nuclear materials and capabilities would be dedicated to peaceful uses, and all IAEA’s safeguards would apply.

Trevor Findlay is a professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and a joint fellow at the Belfer School for Science and international Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the author of Unleashing the Nuclear Watchdog: Strengthening and Reform of the International Atomic Energy, which was released in July 2012 by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and was just published in e-book format (see www.cigionline.org).

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.