The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Iran and the IAEA

An IAEA Board of Governors Report, made public this week by the Institute for Science and International Security, claims that Iran is interfering with the IAEA's mission in the country by blocking the appointment of particular inspectors -- those that possess knowledge and experience of its nuclear fuel cycle. More specifically, they prevented the return of inspectors who highlighted what they believed was unreported nuclear activity.

This report is significant as it's yet another example of the IAEA drawing attention to its own institutional weakness; on this occasion the inability to select its own inspectors. Instead, the agency presents a list of individuals to the country it's inspecting, which can then object to any names it's unhappy with. And in the end it's the state (not the IAEA) that has the final say.

As a result, the IAEA's work is made difficult by Iran throwing obstacles in the way of individuals who are attempting to build expertise. This is particularly true at the facility level, where experience gained from previous visits to Natanz enables a level of knowledge that can not be gained from reading briefing books. But Iran certainly isn't breaking any rules by these actions, it's just not acting in good faith. So what can be done? Answer: nothing. And if the international community did try to reform the selection process then it will be rightly accused of double standards.

So does this report highlight anything new with regards to Iranian compliance?

Well, not really. Once again it shows Tehran isn't willing to go out of its way to prove its compliance, but under the current rules it doesn't need to. So it's just another example of it dragging its feet, even though there is no real evidence it's diverted nuclear material to a weapons programme. So unless a) there is evidence in the future that a significant quantity of material has been diverted; b) all IAEA inspectors are thrown out; or c) additional uranium enrichment facilities are discovered, then the West and Israel are going to find it difficult to prove what Iran's intentions really are.


  1. This is interesting Tom and it explains things about the nuclear inspection process that I did not know. I would make two observations though.

    Firstly, for those who are actively seeking to move against Iran (militarily or otherwise), I'm not sure they really need much proof of anything. If Iran does no more than fail to act in good faith, that will be enough for them to start (or continue) ratcheting up the pressure for action against Iran, based on the argument that 'there is no smoke without fire'.

    How successful they would be is another question - if there was anything positive that came out of the Iraq war it is that western publics will be highly sceptical of alarmist reports that a so-called rogue state possesses WMD. On top of that, western militaries are already stretched so I suspect/hope our military AND CIVILIAN planners would take a dim view of any gung-ho cries for a strike on Iran. That does not include Israel and they are of course the unquantifiable variable in this equation.

    My second observation is more of a question: why is Iran dragging its feet like this? Do they really have something to hide or are they just thumbing their nose at the west out of stubbornness (which would be understandable)? Or are they bluffing, calculating that a whiff of gunsmoke will make the west more cautious towards them than they usually would be? I don't have any answers here, I'm not an expert on Iran, but their stance is not always easy to read, at least from a western perspective.

  2. Thanks Patrick.

    On the first point, you're absolutely right. They're unlikely to need clear-cut evidence before launching a strike, particularly in the case of Israel. But I think it does create problems for the U.S. in terms of the legacy of Iraq. If they can't provide further evidence that Iran does have a weapons programme, then they may back-away from military action. Nevertheless, there is a good chance they may strike anyway (out of interest, did you see Andrews Marr's interview with Tony Blair and the comments he made about Iran?).

    In terms of Iran dragging its feet, there are so many different views. I will say that in terms of nuclear inspectors, it enables Tehran to place a certain amount of pressure on the IAEA staff that are in the country. Whether it actually works or not is another matter. One thing that a lot of people believe to be likely is that Iran will move to the point where they have a break-out capability, on the very brink of a weapons programme, and then stop. To be honest I'm not too sure about this as I think one of the main reasons they are doing it is for prestige and influence; not declaring their capability may diminish some of that influence (or not).

    Another factor is that they are fed-up of being told what to do after such a long history of what they perceive to be Western meddling. This is another reason that people often give for their nuclear activities. This may (I say without being any kind of an expert on this subject myself) be another reason why they are not that eager to demonstrate compliance, as the IAEA is at times seen as a tool of Western policy (a perception that the IAEA goes to great lengths to avoid).

  3. So in answer to your second question, I don't know.