The board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), by nearly a three-to-one margin, declared Syria out of compliance with its safeguards obligations and reported the issue to the UN Security Council on June 9.
Advocates of the successful resolution said it was necessary to defend the credibility of IAEA safeguards after nearly four years of Syrian defiance. Some also claimed that it offers a new paradigm for dealing with countries that refuse to cooperate with the IAEA in addressing weighty allegations that they are secretly proliferating.
What was new? IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano first evaluated intelligence provided by the United States and then found data in the public domain that appeared to validate American analysis before concurring that a building at Dair Alzour destroyed by Israel in 2007 was a covert reactor. The board reported this as noncompliance—and it did so without IAEA inspectors verifying the findings first hand in Syria since June, 2008.
It is far from certain that this approach will become an accepted and effective way forward. Its credibility might be boosted if the IAEA board and secretariat cooperate to define what specifically constitutes noncompliance. But given recent increased politicization of the board, the biggest challenge is that many members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) no longer trust the IAEA secretariat in matters of verification.
In the short term, Syria may be off the hook. Resolution sponsors are correct that passing it “wiped clean” the IAEA’s Syria dossier after years of no action. But because Russia and China voted no, there will also be no action in New York.
When Syria stymied the IAEA’s investigation into Dair Alzour, Washington urged Amano to request Syria to permit a “special inspection” to look for evidence of undeclared nuclear activities. Amano did not comply.
He did try to corroborate U.S. intelligence findings—primarily high-resolution aerial photographs—with other evidence available in the public domain. Amano was then willing to join the conclusion, first asserted by the United States in early 2008, that Dair Alzour was a reactor.
Is this a new paradigm? We’ll see. Three months from now, at its next routine conclave, the board may consider a resolution on North Korea’s lack of cooperation with the IAEA, supported by reporting from Amano. Three months later, toward the end of the year, the board may follow up with a noncompliance resolution on Iran, on the basis of evidence that the IAEA believes to be genuine and compelling, that Iran has been developing a nuclear weapons capability. As in the case of Syria, Iran has refused to discuss these allegations with the IAEA for three years.
In the IAEA boardroom last week, the absence of a common understanding about what constitutes noncompliance with a state’s safeguards obligations, encouraged many delegations to allow extraneous political considerations to take precedence over what should have been a safeguards judgment. Instead of contributing to a common resolve to put Syria on notice, many of these states abstained or voted no.
If the board and secretariat now set up an expert panel to draft a working definition of safeguards noncompliance, it may encourage all states in the future to report noncompliance without consideration of political agendas deterring them from meeting their responsibility to combat proliferation. But if noncompliance is too clearly defined, that might prevent the board from making a finding in an unusual or unexpected case. Strictly defining noncompliance might also result in proliferators identifying a roadmap permitting them to cheat.
U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies said last week that “there were a lot of reasons why states abstained.” In the view of NAM country ambassadors, most represented a vote of no confidence in Amano and IAEA safeguards.
NAM states objected that Amano’s conclusion—that Dair Alzour was “very likely” a reactor—was not strong enough to justify a noncompliance finding. But the IAEA informed these states in May that safeguards experts were virtually certain. The “very likely” qualification was tagged on by cautious IAEA lawyers.
The IAEA’s technical safeguards judgment was not accepted by many NAM states. This lack of trust and confidence in the IAEA’s verifiers is the most fundamental obstacle to any future noncompliance finding. It has no simple fix and restoring confidence will require a long time and a concerted effort by the IAEA member states and secretariat.
There is no Band-Aid solution because the board has always been—and is now—a political body. For over three decades, the two superpowers on the board enforced compliance among their client states. Most of the others had no nuclear capabilities. Today’s board reflects a multipolar world and the aspirations of developing countries, many of which set up a Vienna chapter of the NAM in 2003. Their talking points have since prevailed among many board members—including those that would not support a noncompliance resolution on Iran in 2005 and many of the states that abstained last week.
Since the 2005 Iran resolution, and again last week, the board’s Western and advanced members have been inclined to disregard the board’s tradition of consensus and to simply discount the NAM’s abstention votes to get a result. But there is also the P-5 to consider if and when the Syria resolution inspires an attempt to cite Iran for noncompliance related to charges it has been doing weapons-related work. Unlike the case made by the United States that the destroyed Dair Alzour facility represented a threat to world peace—this was viewed as problematic even by some resolution supporters—a strong case could be made that Iranian nuclear weapons research and development justifies Security Council action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
The Iranian threat may convince China and Russia. Behind Russia’s no vote last week stood NATO’s resolve to assist regime change in Libya and Moscow’s comfortable relationship with the Syrian regime. But before the Syria vote, Russia and China joined France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States in a strong statement vowing to keep pressure on Iran to cooperate with the IAEA.