How the UN’s Nuclear Watchdog Can Restore its Credibility on Iran
World leaders paid their respects last week to Yukiya Amano, the late director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog responsible for monitoring implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Even John Bolton, the White House national security advisor and harsh critic of the UN, praised Amano as “a friend and colleague. He will be sorely missed.” Amano deserves great credit for his efforts to bring the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology to millions around the world, yet in his final years, the IAEA lost sight of its core mission, which is to serve as an impartial and objective monitor committed to preventing nuclear proliferation, especially in Iran.
Under Amano, the IAEA revised its 60-year old motto, “Atoms for Peace,” to become “Atoms for Peace and Development.” He became the agency’s director general (DG) in 2009 and won appointment to a third four-year term in 2017. His focus on development helped member states to achieve their objectives in areas as diverse as health, food, and energy security.
The defining event of Amano’s tenure as DG was the nuclear deal with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Amano and the agency were not an official part of the negotiations, but he played a major role behind the scenes. The parties to the JCPOA even made the deal’s implementation contingent on the IAEA’s verification of Iran’s initial steps.
The JCPOA also required Iran to implement a separate agreement between Iran and the IAEA that would enable the agency to investigate further the so-called possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran now touts the IAEA’s findings as proof that it was given a clean bill of health. The agency found multiple causes for concern, yet it played along with Tehran’s charade sufficiently to protect the JCPOA.
Immediately after the nuclear deal went into effect, Amano’s quarterly reports to the Board of Governors stopped including critical information on topics such as Iran’s production and operation of centrifuges, employment of critical dual-use equipment, and the investigation of illicit procurement activities.
After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the Mossad’s discovery of a secret atomic archive in a Tehran warehouse, Amano’s response entailed a blend of procrastination and excuses. Last November, seven months after the Israeli revelations, Amano was still insisting, “We need to analyze the information, and it will take time, of course.” To this day, the IAEA has not stated whether its inspectors have ever visited the Tehran warehouse that stored the archive, or even that the agency requested a visit. Meanwhile, independent experts demonstrated, based on documents from the archive, that Iran’s nuclear weapons program had been far more advanced than the IAEA had ever known.
After honoring Amano’s legacy at a recent meeting, the IAEA Board of Governors designated Cornel Feruta, one of Amano’s assistants, as acting DG. There is an urgent need for a permanent replacement; however, since a temporary leader cannot take decisive action to restore the agency’s credibility on Iran.
The next DG should insist on a vigorous and thorough investigation of all sites, equipment, and activities described by Iran’s once-secret archive. Likewise, Amano’s successor should ensure a rigorous examination of a second site in Tehran, which Israeli intelligence discovered based on its analysis of documents in the archive. Media reports indicate that agency inspectors visited the site after a delay of several months, which gave Iran enough time to relocate its contents and attempt to cleanse the site. One Israeli paper has reported, however, that the IAEA found traces of radioactive material there. The material is possibly an unnatural form of uranium.
If this report is true, Iran would have breached not just the JCPOA, but the legally binding Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement it signed pursuant to its ratification of the landmark 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT. Consequently, even the governments most supportive of the JCPOA would have to re-instate sanctions. With so much at stake, it is essential for the new DG to provide comprehensive reports to the board.
Another option for the IAEA would be to suspend its technical cooperation programs with Iran. Likewise, the director general should steer the agency away from hosting events in Iran, such as last year’s workshop on disposal of radioactive waste. Indeed, until Iran complies fully with its non-proliferation duties, the goal should be to prevent Tehran from educating a new generation of nuclear scientists and missile engineers.
In addition to advocating for a suitable replacement for Amano, the United States can set a precedent for the DG to take the steps outlined above by issuing no more extensions of the waivers that suspend sanctions on civilian nuclear cooperation with Iran by foreign actors. Calling the projects civilian is a misnomer. One of them is an effort to repurpose the fortified underground enrichment facility that Iran secretly constructed at Fordow.
This is not to suggest that the IAEA should become an adjunct to the American campaign of maximum pressure on Iran. Rather, the IAEA must reverse course under a new DG to become an impartial and objective monitor of the JCPOA and Iran’s binding non-proliferation agreements. An objective monitor would aggressively pursue all credible evidence of Iranian violations rather than hesitate to expose illicit activity that may embarrass one side or the other.
Professor Jacob Nagel, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council and a former national security advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Dr. David Adesnik, a former Pentagon analyst, is director of research at FDD.