A Summary of “Obtaining Verification: The IAEA and Nuclear Inspections”

Reviewed by Associate Editor Uma Gonchigar

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the world’s leading monitor of nuclear arms agreements. In 1957, various countries joined to create the IAEA to stop the proliferation of nuclear arms. The IAEA’s role grew after the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which required signatories to accede to review by the IAEA. While not part of the United Nations (UN), the IAEA works in cooperation with UN agencies. For one, the IAEA often reports non-compliance to the UN Security Council, which can use its authority to compel a country to comply with nuclear arms agreements. Today, the IAEA states three goals: safeguards and verification, safety and security, and science and technology.

The IAEA is led by a Board of Governors comprised of thirty-four countries. The Board’s most important power is its ability to refer rogue states to the UN Security Council. Another body of the IAEA, the General Conference, meets once a year and holds little real power. The Secretariat forms the IAEA’s civil service bureaucracy. Overseen by the IAEA Director General, the Secretariat contains six departments (Management, Nuclear Sciences and Applications, Nuclear Energy, Nuclear Safety and Security, Technical Cooperation, and Safeguards) and is comprised of inspectors, analysts, technical officers, engineers, and other technical experts.

The conciliatory “spirit of Vienna” that guided the Board of Governors in the past has ceded to a more divisive atmosphere. Two caucuses within the IAEA, G77 and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), focus more on technical assistance for developing countries than on preventing nuclear proliferation. NAM has expressed skepticism over the proportion of the budget that is allocated for verification. Meanwhile, Western countries advocate increasing safeguards.

Zhou draws upon the ideas of exit and voice to examine why states remain in the IAEA. Exit is an economic tool by which a participating state invests resources outside the organization. Voice is a political tool by which states petition superiors to reform the organization. Although the IAEA has no viable competitors, exit stresses the IAEA because one rogue state may push nuclear proliferation in many countries that are still in the IAEA.

Then, Zhou recommends several measures to democratize the IAEA. First, the General Conference could meet two to four times per year rather than only once. Second, Zhou suggests that the Board of Governors allow any country to attend the Board’s meetings. To alleviate budgetary constraints, Zhou proposes that the IAEA increase mandatory contributions from participating countries, particularly wealthy developed countries, along with states that have seen significant development in the past twenty years, such as China and Brazil.

Zhou cites Iraq as one of the IAEA’s notable failures. In 1990, the IAEA declared that Iraq was complying with the NPT. After the First Persian Gulf War, the IAEA sought to improve its investigative methods. The Iraq misstep taught the IAEA to give inspectors more autonomy, partly through the creation of Additional Protocols. When the IAEA used U.S. intelligence in its verification process, Iraq accused the IAEA of acting as the United States’ puppet. After Iraq, the IAEA reconsidered its use of intelligence.

Finally, Zhou highlights the importance of the IAEA’s perceived legitimacy. Here, Zhou argues that the IAEA should allow a country to select the inspectors who will verify it. Further, Zhou recommends more judicious use of intelligence. Zhou underscores the importance of the IAEA maintaining a non-political role.

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