Judging the Mood at the IAEA

by Ivanka Barzashka and Ivan Oelrich

The latest IAEA report on Iran has been widely touted as containing new evidence of Iranian weapons work and as a sign of the Agency’s new hard-line attitude toward the Islamic Republic under its new Director General Yukiya Amano. We believe the document has been seriously misrepresented in the media and elsewhere, which could have dangerous consequences.  We made this argument in a recent op-ed in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

We should all bother to do a little reading and get our facts straight. If there was a case for new crippling sanctions or for bombing Iran before, the report adds nothing new.    The February report contains no new evidence of Iranian weapons work that was not already in the public domain. There is no independent IAEA assessment that Iran currently has or has ever had a nuclear weapons program. This is also hardly the first time that the Agency has addressed outstanding questions pertaining to the possible military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program and has asked for Iran to respond.

Very limited space in our brief Bulletin op-ed did not allow us to address the issue of Amano’s allegedly new tougher tone. The February document, being Amano’s first, has been subject to an exegesis to discern potential attitudes from the director and has been described by Western media as blunt and even confrontational. Inside Iran, the issue of tone has been viewed by some as a “direct result of a change in leadership, and not the outcome of an unbiased evaluation.”

Because of there is a large element of subjectivity, arguments about tone are difficult to defend and put us in the realm of literary analysis. However, we do not believe that the February report had a jarring difference in tone, especially when compared to ElBaradei’s more detailed reports of 2008. The State Department also did not believe this was a fair characterization and that the IAEA’s work in Iran has been a “steady process”.

We invite you to lay out the latest report next to other IAEA reports, especially those from 2008, and consider differences in tone.  Whereas most past reports have proceeded straight to the technical issues, GOV/2010/11 starts with a short summary of events related to Iran’s decision to suspend enrichment and its consequent reversal of that position. Consequently, it could be argued that the report places inspection and material balance accounts in the framework of Iranian noncompliance with Security Council resolutions to suspend enrichment and heavy water projects. But in his statement to the Board of Governors, Amano explained that he just wanted his report “to be a stand-alone document.”

Admittedly, Amano has changed some of ElBaradei’s standard wording. For example, in the November report ElBaradei stated just the facts that “failure to inform the Agency, in accordance to the provisions of the revised Code 3.1 […] is inconsistent with obligations under the Subsidiary Arrangements to its Safeguards Agreement.” In the February issue, Amano goes further to say that this “raises concerns about the completeness of [Iran’s] declarations.” This is hardly confrontational, but use of language is important.  No matter the context, the phrase “nuclear payload for a missile”, which was absent from previous reports and which the media have widely cited, will always sound disconcerting.

The level of detail in the report, especially in the possible military dimensions section has been mistaken as new evidence on Iranian weapons work.  Amano said he “tried to make it factual, without overdoing the detail,” but the level of specificity has been viewed as a gauge of political pressure. Perhaps a detailed list of outstanding issues every time appears to be unnecessary browbeating, but indirect language also risks being interpreted as letting an important question slide. For example, last year Israeli and Western officials accused the Agency of withholding information on Iranian weapons work because a certain technical appendix was excluded from the final version of the August 2009 report.  When judging this report, it should be compared, not simply to the immediately preceding report but to the whole body of reports, which also contain a great deal of detail in their accusations.

Although we believe any change in tone is largely imagined, welcoming a new “tough” approach from the Agency is a mistake. According to ElBaradei, demanding answers to outstanding questions is already increasingly difficult since the Agency can’t share most intelligence it receives from member states directly with Tehran. (The foreign intelligence agencies fear, and rightly so, that revealing such details to Iran could jeopardize the lives of its agents. It could expose communication channels that have been compromised and allow Tehran to eliminate leaks.) A confrontational approach from the agency could jeopardize its reputation as a disinterested observer and Iranian cooperation with safeguards inspections. These are reports to the Board of Governors, not from it. IAEA accounts should be “just-the-facts” affairs with tone and action left to the Board or the Security Council.

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