The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has long been characterized as a “nuclear watchdog.” European and U.S. media actually use this term as a synonym of the IAEA. The late Director General of the Agency, Yukiya Amano, devoted an entire speech at the opening of one of his first sessions of the General Conference to dispel this conventional wisdom. He explained that the range of the tasks that lay before the Agency and its efforts extended far beyond non-proliferation. This important thesis was later reflected in the IAEA’s new motto: “Atoms for Peace and Development”.
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine global development without peace and security maintained. Turning back to the old metaphor, it will be true to say that the Agency does ensure that non-nuclear States parties to the NPT comply with their obligations and, roughly speaking, do not secretly engage in the development of nuclear weapons. Moreover, it is widely acknowledged that the IAEA does its work honestly and professionally. Even amid the most severe restrictions set across the globe due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Agency has not stopped its verification activities. Impartiality, high qualification of the Secretariat staff, and a methodology proven by decades of experience―all of this builds trust in the IAEA’s verification activities, which in turn forms a unique security environment within the NPT. It is this trust that underlies the long-term sustainability of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
However, we do not live in an ideal world where everything is perfect, so questions about the Agency’s conduct of business do arise, and quite regularly. Specifically, the vulnerability of the IAEA’s activities in the safeguards field and its direct reporting to the UN Security Council in cases of safeguards non-compliance exposes the Vienna organization to political winds from all sides. Therefore, there is always a risk that someone might unchain the “watchdog” and set it on “inconvenient” countries. Let us have a look at how this may happen.
A TOOL OF MAXIMUM PRESSURE
On May 5, 2020, shortly before the regular session of the IAEA Board of Governors, where access of the Agency’s inspectors to two locations in Iran was seen as the hot issue, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State issued an article about the integrity of the IAEA safeguards system in the context of the questions the Agency posed to Iran. And, most probably, the high-ranking diplomat would have succeeded in disguising U.S. pressure on Iran by his care for the safeguards system, if not for one phrase: “When it comes to Iran, however, the biggest threat to the safeguards system is the regime in Tehran itself.” This phrase leaves no doubt about the real goals of the U.S. But how did it all begin?
On April 30, 2018, a few days before the United States announced its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu claimed at a press conference that he had “new and conclusive proof of [Iran’s] secret nuclear weapons program”. According to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli secret services had stolen half a ton of secret Iranian documents that allegedly pointed to the development of a military nuclear program by Tehran. These documents were shared with the IAEA’s Secretariat.
A few months later, on September 27, 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu, standing on the UN General Assembly tribune, accused the IAEA of inaction: “I provided hard evidence of Iran’s plans to build nuclear weapons… Months have passed. The IAEA has still not taken any action. It has not posed a single question to Iran. It has not demanded to inspect a single new site discovered in that secret archive”.
Responding to public criticism, the IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano stated that under the existing verification framework the Agency sends inspectors to sites and locations only when needed. The Agency uses all safeguards relevant information available to it, but it does not take any information at face value. All information obtained, including from third parties, is subject to rigorous review and assessed together with other available information for the Agency to arrive at an independent assessment based on its own expertise.
However, the story with the “Netanyahu archive” had a spin off. On March 3, and then on June 5, 2020, the incumbent IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi issued two reports on the NPT Safeguards Agreement with Iran. Making no direct reference to the Israeli archive, the reports note that comprehensive evaluation of all safeguards-relevant information available to the Agency is essential for drawing conclusions about the implementation of safeguards in a particular country. Such information “is subject to an extensive and rigorous corroboration process.” It was on this basis that the Agency asked for clarifications from Iran concerning possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities at locations that had not been declared by Iran, and requested access to two sites in the territory of that country. As a result, on June 19, 2020, the IAEA Board of Governors adopted a resolution through a vote calling on Iran to provide the Agency with the required access. However, the Member States’ views diverged. This was the first time in almost ten years that the Board adopted a resolution on safeguards matters by vote.
Responding to the Agency’s suspicions, Iran reminded that the IAEA should specify the reasons for any request. In this particular case, the Iranians indicated, the Agency had neglected this basic principle. According to Iran, “merely forwarding some papers based on the intelligence services’ fabricated information… does not entitle the Agency for such requests, nor creates any obligation for Iran to consider such requests.”
Regardless of whether the “Netanyahu archive” contains genuine Iranian documents or all of this is a planned operation of the Israeli special services, the disputes around the Iranian issue in Vienna have shown a lack of transparency and mechanisms that would enjoy understanding and trust of the Agency’s Member States when it comes to the IAEA’s handling of information from third parties. Moreover, it is this kind of information that served as the basis for almost all decisions of the IAEA Board of Governors on non-compliance with safeguards obligations by States. Each new country specific case brought before the Board raises questions and debates, thus undermining international credibility of the IAEA.
THE ORIGINS OF THE ISSUE
The question of using information from third parties in implementing safeguards arose after the discovery of Iraqi undeclared military nuclear program. In September 1991, the IAEA General Conference approved Resolution GC(XXXV)/RES/559 that instructed the Board of Governors and the Agency’s Director General to take measures to strengthen the effectiveness of the safeguards system. In his opening remarks at the session of the Board of Governors on December 5, 1991, the IAEA Director General Hans Blix indicated that the safeguards system was criticized because inspections of undeclared nuclear facilities in Iraq became possible only due to the request and support of the UN Security Council. At the same time, in his opinion, information supplied to the Agency about the sites and installations that should be inspected played a decisive role for the Agency’s findings. If the Agency were to work only with the information provided by officials in Baghdad, then the IAEA, according to the Director General, would have turned into a “paper tiger.”
The safeguards system, as Hans Blix insisted, needed “fundamental modification.” The Agency should accept and examine any information, be it official data, information from the media or from national intelligence services. Of course, as the Director General pointed out, such information may be provided for ulterior reasons, and it would be a mistake to rely on it unconditionally. However, it would be an even bigger mistake to ignore it as even official information is not always completely true.
One of the effective measures to detect undeclared nuclear activities, as suggested by Hans Blix, would be collecting all available information, including data from routine safeguards activities, information from open sources, and information obtained by Member States through “national means.” Understanding that the latter initiative was particularly sensitive, Blix proposed to establish a special unit of two specialists in his direct subordination. They would be entrusted to receive and analyze information from third parties, and then give recommendations to the Director General whether it should be used or not. At the first stage, the Agency could also turn directly to the State in question for clarification. According to Blix, in this case the risk of infringing on the sovereignty of a country would be avoided.
The recommendations presented by the Director General caused a split in the Board of Governors. Western countries, including the United States, fully supported new proposals to use all available information, including information from third parties. The Group of 77 States criticized Hans Blix’s initiative. Concerns were voiced that such decisions would turn the IAEA into yet another international organization, like the Interpol, operating on the basis of information from national intelligence services. It was emphasized that the legitimization of special services’ activities under the umbrella of the IAEA and the calls by the head of the Agency to provide intelligence data undermine the foundations of the safeguards system, which was built on the principles of non-interference in internal affairs and respect for the sovereignty of States. Failure of Iraq to fulfill its non-proliferation obligations should not undermine confidence about other countries’ compliance. Exporters of nuclear equipment to Baghdad, according to many delegations of the Group of 77, were equally responsible for the violation of the NPT by Iraq.
The Soviet delegation indicated that Member States and the IAEA Secretariat needed to develop new special tools that would complement the already established safeguards system in order to identify violators of safeguards obligations. However, practical implementation of such decisions might entail serious political and technical problems. These approaches―which, incidentally, the USSR was promoting at the dawn of the NPT, trying to stop the threat of nuclear proliferation in Europe―were ultimately reflected in the new legal document designed in 1997―the Additional Protocol to the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, which to this day provides the Agency with all the necessary tools to verify compliance with NPT non-proliferation obligations.
Following long consultations, on February 25, 1992, the next session of the Board of Governors presented the following compromise to the Director General and the Agency’s Secretariat: “The Board reaffirmed the Agency’s rights to obtain and to have access to additional information and locations in accordance with the Agency’s Statute and all comprehensive safeguards agreements.” At the same time, the Board made a critical decision that, under the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, the Agency should verify not only “correctness,” but also “completeness” of states’ safeguards declarations. This basically confirmed the IAEA’s right not only to verify declared nuclear material, but also to seek indications of undeclared nuclear material.
However, the key proposal of the Director General―a call upon all Member States to provide the Agency with the information at their disposal regarding safeguards violations by other countries―was not tackled. This central issue was not resolved.
Detecting undeclared nuclear activities in Iraq made the Agency launch the so-called “93+2 Program” aimed to substantially reform the safeguards system. As early as in May 1993, the IAEA Director General already indicated to the Board that the Secretariat had taken measures to collect and analyze all available safeguards information that the Agency received from Member States.
Following the implementation of the two-year safeguards reform program in 1995, the Board of Governors approved the so-called “Part 1 Measures” to strengthen the safeguards system that the Agency could implement within the existing legal framework. It included the requirement to provide more detailed declarations on the design of nuclear facilities and to use environmental sample analysis and satellite imagery. Other proposed measures (Part 2), such as the need for a detailed description and provision of access to IAEA inspectors to all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, fell outside the scope of the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement. As a result, it was decided to develop an additional legal document that significantly expanded the Agency’s ability to provide access to locations of interest―a model Additional Protocol to the Safeguards Agreement (INFCIRC/540) that all countries could voluntarily conclude with the IAEA.
However, all of the new measures to strengthen the safeguards system did not clarify the issue of how the IAEA should receive and process information from third parties.
After intense discussions in the 1990s emotions around this topic settled down a bit. Eventually, the use of information from third parties found its way into the Agency’s routine practices. Today, no one directly disputes the right of the IAEA Secretariat to analyze such information. In particular, the consensus final document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference called on the States parties to share information with the IAEA should they “have concerns regarding non-compliance with the safeguards agreements of the Treaty by the States parties.”
Debates over the issue of third-party information broke out with renewed vigor in 2012, when the IAEA Secretariat began to use increasingly such terms as “information driven safeguards” and “State Level Concept.” Once again, serious concerns were raised about how the IAEA Secretariat receives, processes and uses information from open sources and third parties while planning and conducting verification activities in accordance with the new concept.
Following intensive open-ended consultations between the Secretariat and Member States in 2013-2014, Director General Yukiya Amano published a new document with a more detailed portrayal of all the elements of the safeguards system, where he tried to provide answers to all the questions raised. For the first time, the Agency provided a description of the procedures for working with information from third parties. As has been noted above, third-party information is only a minor part of the information available to the Agency but it can nevertheless be an important source. The Secretariat is careful and prudent in the use of such information, which is reviewed critically and corroborated against other safeguards information available to the Agency.
However, there are no clear-cut restrictions for the Secretariat’s work with information from open sources and third parties. Such an approach―especially in the era of “fake news”―does not exclude the risk of deliberate misuse of this mechanism by interested parties which may wish to settle their political scores with other states. The Agency proceeds from the fact that no one is safe from deliberate injection of false information. However, the IAEA cannot turn a blind eye on information that could potentially indicate to violations of safeguards obligations.
The Russian side believes that a certain level of insurance could be found in an understanding that when the Agency plans its inspections and especially when it prepares safeguards conclusions, information from third parties should be taken into account only if the Secretariat is ready to defend it in an open discussion with Member States. However, these Russian arguments are stubbornly ignored by Western states. Such proposals are considered as “micromanagement” and are presented as an example of distrust in the work of the IAEA Secretariat. In one of his statements, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State even accused Russia of trying to undermine the IAEA’s ability to evaluate all available information, which, as he pointed out, would undercut decades of progress in strengthening nuclear safeguards, and damage the non-proliferation regime.
AN INSTRUMENT OF INTERNATIONAL TRUST
Such disputes between Member States could be avoided. One of the solutions is for the Agency to show greater transparency in preparing its safeguards conclusions. Issues that split the Board, as was the case with Syria and Iran, when the Agency’s conclusions were based mostly on information from third parties, must be avoided. The IAEA Secretariat should describe in detail the process of filtering and corroborating the information it receives. More generally, as the Agency is fine-tuning the “State Level Concept,” it would be necessary to describe what role information from third parties can play in determining the technical objectives of the Agency’s safeguards, establishing verification mechanisms, and preparing conclusions. Member States need to be confident that such activities do not stretch beyond the rights and obligations that the IAEA and countries have depending on the types of their safeguards agreements. They need to understand whether analysis of third-party information meets the principles of objectivity and impartiality of the Agency’s verification work. Questions remain as to whether such IAEA activities may serve as a pretext for interference in internal affairs of states, which would turn the Agency into a tool for verifying intelligence data.
The IAEA’s work in the field of safeguards is built on a delicate balance between respect for sovereignty and the need to ensure that the nuclear non-proliferation regime is functioning. No one has the right to undermine this balance and cast doubt on the basic principles of technical, objective, transparent, depoliticized and independent work of the IAEA Secretariat. Indeed, in the desert of arms control and non-proliferation, which is rapidly expanding, and where effective international mechanisms once reigned, the Agency’s safeguards system remains almost the only oasis. It needs prudent care. Otherwise, it will turn into a mirage. A regular and thorough discussion of safeguards at both technical and political levels by all countries which care about the future of the nuclear non-proliferation regime is an absolute necessity. Apathy is unacceptable because a malfunctioning safeguards system can affect everyone.
One cannot but support the appeal of the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State to Moscow and Washington to work together to strengthen the international institutions of transparency and accountability that support the global non-proliferation regime, not to undermine them. Refusing the temptation to use the IAEA verification mechanisms as an instrument of political pressure may be a key step in this direction. The system of government―be it in Tehran, Washington or Moscow―should not affect the development of an effective system for applying safeguards. Finding agreement on this basic principle will open a broad highway for positive cooperation in the interests of strengthening the foundation of nuclear non-proliferation. Ensuring unwavering trust in the IAEA as an unbiased and independent “law enforcer” of the NPT is in the interest of all, without exception.
 Christopher A. Ford. Iranian Nuclear Safeguards Concerns and the Integrity of the IAEA Safeguards System. Arms Control and International Security Paper Series, Vol. I, No. 5, May 5, 2020
 IAEA Director General’s report “NPT Safeguards Agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran” (GOV/2020/15, GOV/2020/30).
 Russia and China voted against. Azerbaijan, India, Mongolia, Niger, Pakistan, Thailand, South Africa abstained.
 INFCIRC/933, 5 March 2020.
 According to IAEA Director General’s reports, the Board of Governors reported on non-compliance in cases of Iraq (1991), Romania (1992), DPRK (1993), Libya (2004), Iran (2006), and Syria (2011).
 Laura Rockwood. Legal Framework for IAEA Safeguards. Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, 2013. https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/16/12/legalframeworkforsafeguards.pdf
 IAEA Director General‘s report “Strengthening the Effectiveness and Efficiency of the Safeguards System”, 14 May, 1993 (GOV/2657).
 IAEA Director General’s proposals for a strengthened and more efficient safeguards system, 12 May, 1995 (GOV 2807).
 NPT/CPNF/2010/50 (Vol.1), Para 9.
 IAEA Director General‘s report “Supplementary Document to the Report on the Conceptualization and Development of Safeguards Implementation at the State Level” (GOV/2014/41).
 Christopher A. Ford. The Challenge and the Potential of US-Russian Nonproliferation Cooperation, 22 October, 2018.