Special Report

Watchdog or Lapdog?

The only good thing one can say about the UN-affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency is that its director, Mohamed ElBaradei is stepping down in November.

By 9.16.09

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As the International Atomic Energy Agency convenes a series of high-level conferences in September, reports have indicated President Obama is considering imposing "crippling sanctions" against Iran in an attempt to curb that country's development of nuclear weapons. But if President Obama continues to make the UN-affiliated IAEA part of the equation in determining the course of action on Iran, it is unlikely that we will see the emergence of any sort of effective strategy to address what is arguably the greatest threat to our national security.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton made a persuasive case recently in the Wall Street Journal as to why sanctions, at this advanced stage, are unlikely to prevent the realization of a nuclear Iran. The presence of Russia and China on the Security Council, the likely lack of resolve from the European Union or the newly elected government of Japan, Iran's augmentation (with China's help) of its domestic oil refining capacity -- these combined factors, Bolton notes, would serve to render sanctions a futile exercise, no matter how "crippling" their intent.

Equally problematic is that the IAEA remains the gatekeeper of the evidence against Iran. The Obama administration and much of the international community will continue to look to the IAEA's views of the Iranian program to provide the requisite, ostensibly impartial seal of approval and political cover necessary to justify sanctions or other courses of action.

But the IAEA is itself a serious problem.

The IAEA is tasked with serving as the verification authority for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran's status as a party to the NPT -- and the revelations of Iran's long-running violations of its NPT obligations through its undisclosed pursuit of nuclear energy and strongly suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons capability -- is the nexus for IAEA involvement. But the IAEA's performance under the leadership of its current director, Mohamed ElBaradei, casts substantial doubt on the Agency's ability to function effectively as a nuclear proliferation watchdog -- particularly when it insists on giving the benefit of the doubt to regimes that could care less about the notion of honoring international commitments.

Take Syria. Last year, the IAEA clashed publicly with the United States and other western nations over the question of whether Syria should receive aid for a civilian nuclear power program. The U.S. took the position that Syria should not receive such aid in the midst of the IAEA's own investigation into whether a facility bombed there in a 2007 Israeli air raid was in fact a covert nuclear reactor being built with North Korean assistance.

ElBaradei's response: "There are claims against Syria, which we're looking at. There were claims against Iraq, which were proven bonkers (mad), and after, the result was a terrible war." A year later, according to Reuters, when ElBaradei was confronted with American and Israeli accusations of being "soft" on Syria, "ElBaradei denied [that] and suggested Israel's atomic might has added to Middle East instability by spurring others, like Iran…to seek nuclear weapons capability."

The IAEA record and rhetoric on Iran is equally discouraging, due in no small measure to ElBaradei's schizophrenic approach to Tehran's activities. On the one hand, ElBaradei in his late August report to the Security Council stated that Iran has not been forthcoming on the "possible military dimensions" of its nuclear program. More recently, ElBaradei stated during the IAEA Board of Governors meeting: "…Iran has not cooperated with the Agency in connection with the remaining issues…need to be clarified in order to exclude the possibility of there being military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program."

Yet, ElBaradei also said in a recent Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: "In many ways, I think the threat has been hyped….Iran needs to be more transparent with the IAEA and the international community…But the idea that we'll wake up tomorrow and Iran will have a nuclear weapon is an idea that isn't supported by the facts as we have seen them so far."

While there have periodically been encouraging signs, the IAEA is apparently willing, on the whole, to err on the side of the Iran threat being "hype" -- so much so that it saw nothing wrong with providing Iran with a total $15 million for nuclear research between 1997 and 2007 through the Agency's Technical Cooperation program. Syria received $14 million, and Sudan and Cuba each received $11 million from the IAEA during that same period.

Incredibly, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) which reported these findings, the U.S. State Department gave the green light for the funding, despite the fact that all four countries are on the Department's own list of terror-sponsoring nations, and therefore subject to sanctions under U.S. law. The IAEA, for its part, was happy to oblige. In explaining this decision, the IAEA stated to the GAO: "There are no good countries and no bad countries."

In what is perhaps the greatest punchline to the IAEA's sorry conduct, at the Agency's 14 ongoing general conference, Iran intends to offer -- with the support of over 100 nation members of the Non-Aligned Movement -- a resolution banning military attacks on nuclear facilities. In a universe that was right-side-up, one could imagine that a terrorism-sponsoring nation that has violated its own treaty obligations in pursuit of military nuclear capabilities would not be allowed to use a major meeting convened under the auspices of the so-called nuclear "watchdog" as the venue for such a stunt. But this is the IAEA, where there are no good countries or bad countries -- that is, unless we're talking about Israel.

Although Mohamed ElBaradei will be stepping down as IAEA Director General in November, there is so far little reason for optimism. His replacement, Yukiya Amano, in response to a press question on Iran, said: "I don't see any evidence in IAEA official documents about [Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.]" He added that when it comes to Iran and Syria, he would not be a "soft" or "tough" Director General. Clearly the United States can no longer afford to make this agency a decisive voice on how to identify and hold accountable the world's ascendant nuclear outlaws.

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About the Author

Ben Lerner is Vice President for Government Relations at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.