The “fearful atomic dilemma:” checking in with the new management

It is a precarious time to be managing the international organization charged with stopping the proliferation of the world’s deadliest weapons.

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The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has had a new boss for five months. Last October, governments elected Rafael Grossi as its director general. The diplomat had served as Argentina’s ambassador to the agency. After a decade in office, the incumbent, Yukiya Amano, died in July.

It is a precarious time to be managing the international organization charged with stopping the proliferation of the world’s deadliest weapons. Dry kindling litters the global nuclear landscape even as the novel coronavirus pandemic monopolizes global citizen and government attention.

Most flammable is the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program after the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on May 8, 2018. Will the country expel IAEA inspectors—and would Saudi Arabia or Turkey make good on bluster to pursue nuclear arms?

Beyond the region, other states monitored by the IAEA mumble that they might now want nuclear weapons. South Korea is among them, facing a nuclear-armed, missile-developing, diplomacy-fatigued North. Meanwhile, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) mandating IAEA inspections for most countries with nuclear technology was looking volatile even before the meeting to review its implementation was postponed.

In his famous 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech, President Eisenhower proposed the IAEA’s creation as part of America’s “determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma”—advancing peaceful nuclear applications while preventing the spread of dangerous nuclear materials across the globe. But far from solving the dilemma, the organization embodies its inherent and irreducible tension.

The new director general’s job description reflects the agency’s self-contradictory mission. He is at once an accountant, a promoter, and a diplomat. Grossi’s challenge is to choose which of these competing roles to emphasize at the cost of the others.

The agency is best known for tracking the world’s nuclear materials ledger. Countries that sign the NPT and have renounced nuclear arms (referred to as “non-nuclear-weapon States”) are required to negotiate an agreement to let IAEA inspectors verify that no weapons-usable materials go missing.

Grossi urged states that have not granted the most comprehensive oversight access to “bring such agreements into force without delay” in his first statement to the IAEA’s Board of Governors, which consists of member government representatives. The early signs are that he also places a heavy emphasis on enforcing the nuclear verifications these agreements entail. Unlike his rivals, Grossi addressed the Iranian nuclear program directly, calling for a “firm but fair” approach in last year’s election campaign.

Since taking office, the new director general has stayed true to this approach, issuing in March a report in which he called on Iran “immediately to cooperate fully with the Agency” without polite euphemism. Grossi has also prompted Syria and North Korea to comply with the IAEA, and noted that if a deal was made with the DPRK, the Agency would be ready to resume inspections “while the ink is still fresh.”

One of the sixth director general’s priorities is to find new partnerships and sources of funding. A former IAEA official, Laura Rockwood, has explained the mismatch between the agency’s global mission and its resources. The Vienna-based organization covers 181 countries with “260 active inspectors, using an annual budget of less $200,000,000,” which she calculates amounts to “barely 3 percent of the annual budget of the New York City police department.” This under-resourced global accounting mission would be difficult enough with a competing mandatory aim.

The recent restrictions to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus have further complicated this mandate. As a response, the IAEA is currently operating its safeguards operations remotely, including in Iran.

The IAEA is charged with proselytizing on behalf of civilian nuclear technology. From its founding, this was to serve the needs of developing countries, which hold a high proportion of seats on the organization’s governing board.

As a result, there is political pressure to keep the agency’s budget allocated to inspections balanced with funding for helping countries develop peaceful applications, including energy, agriculture, and medicine. It is currently offering technical support for anti-COVID-19 measures. This also means the agency assumes responsibilities when nuclear technology’s downsides materialize, like during the Fukushima incident.

Besides safety, Grossi has focused on assuring security. He stresses a solid protection of nuclear technology from malicious use as an “enabler” to making full use of nuclear technology. This is a core area of his resource collection policy. He has emphasized the need for raising funds beyond extra-budgetary contributions for this enterprise, and $20 million have been pledged to the Nuclear Security Fund in his term.  

From the earliest days, as Elizabeth Roehrlich has recounted, the IAEA’s promotional aim has “outweighed the complex problem of security and verification.” Robert Brown and Jeffrey Kaplow have argued this may have had the unintended effect facilitating nuclear arms development in some countries.

With organizational goals so contradictory, every director general must choose their areas of emphasis. Because member states also have strong views and deep interests in the approach an IAEA boss takes to the job, deft diplomacy could be considered its third pillar. As even its official history admits, the result is that the director general’s “personality” is critical in shaping the agency’s impact.

After severe shortcomings in the monitoring of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program were exposed in the 1990s, Hans Blix fought for more access and better inspector tools and overcame the chummy relationship between inspectors and inspected.

His successor, Mohammed ElBaradei, took a different stance on the global stage. By resisting calls to wade into the Bush Administration’s confrontations with Iraq and Iran over their nuclear programs, he earned US enmity and the agency a Nobel Peace Prize for his independent interpretation of the job. By contrast, Yukiya Amano was judged by some as too attentive to American ideas of how to run the IAEA.

Balancing the IAEA’s two opposing roles as both promoter and safeguard of nuclear technology while upholding the appearance of being unbiased would be challenging at any time. It is even more so given the current discord concerning the question of nuclear verification in Iran.

A delicate question Grossi is dealing with in this respect is how to handle secrets provided by intelligence services. Allison Carnegie and Austin Carson preview the difficult choices the director general will face between securing confidential intelligence while retaining independence of judgment.

Grossi’s appeal to Iran to grant inspectors access to two sites, most likely flagged based on Israeli intelligence, constitutes a choice in line with the U.S. agenda. American government representatives supported Grossi in February, having supported his bid for office, with the energy secretary calling him the “perfect candidate”. Against this backdrop, the diplomatic bill for Grossi’s hard line may be high at the Board of Governors if he is seen as advancing mainly American interests.

Eisenhower’s atomic dilemma, “finding the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life” remains fearfully unresolved. Should any smoldering nuclear crisis ignite, Grossi’s diplomatic maneuvering and prioritizing among the agency’s contradictory mandates would be critical in containing the flames. So far, he has proved a steady steward of one of the world’s toughest jobs.

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