Iran and the Board of Governors

Nov 16 2011
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament

Hugh Chalmers, Andreas Persbo and Sonya Pillay, London

When the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors meet this week, the 35 member-state representatives will have some important decisions to make. Last Tuesday’s IAEA report on Iran has yet again stirred intense debate over the nature of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and the appropriate policy responses. While certain states may advocate particular responses to the disclosures contained in this document, ultimately the appropriate multilateral response will come through the Board of Governors. In the light cast by the clear and detailed case against Iran contained within the Director General’s report, what could or should the Board of Governors do?

Thankfully, both the IAEA Board of Governors and the UN Security Council are well practiced at responding to revelations concerning Iran’s nuclear programme. Over the last eight years, the Board has adopted ten resolutions in relation to safeguards in Iran. Over the past five, the UN Security Council has similarly adopted six resolutions on Iran, including demands to halt enrichment and reprocessing activities, and extensive economic sanctions. This latest report demonstrates however that the IAEA still has “serious concerns regarding the possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear programme. It is clear that the multilateral approach up to now has neither arrested the development of Iran’s enrichment activities, nor prompted Iran to bridge the daunting gap in confidence between itself and the IAEA.

It is therefore worth considering whether last Tuesday’s report contains new, reliable and compelling information which could form the basis of a new strategy from the IAEA Board of Governors.

Old information in a new box?
For the Board of Governors, some aspects of the new report will make for familiar reading. In particular, the pages which cover the results of recent IAEA safeguards inspection activities at declared facilities in Iran. Physical inventory verification (PIV) and design information questionnaire (DIQ) verification activities, which are the bread-and-butter of Agency verification activities, give no indication of undeclared nuclear activities. This is not surprising, given that the safeguards system is not designed to reveal evidence of covert nuclear weapons programmes. In respect to nuclear materials, however, the system works fine. The Director-General summarises that the Agency “continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material”. From this perspective, Agency safeguards have successfully verified one fundamental aspect of declared Iranian activity; their correctness.

However, it is unable to provide “credible assurance” that these declarations are complete. Again, this makes for familiar reading. Iran has previously omitted important nuclear-related materials and activities from its declarations (see GOV/2003/75). However, the Agency has yet to acquire sufficient information from Iran, through either existing safeguards agreements or ad-hoc arrangements, to allay fears that Iran still hides aspects of its nuclear programme.

While Iran withholds information, the Agency has acquired information from a number of other sources which only heightens their concerns. This information indicates that Iran has indeed been attempting to develop undeclared pathways to nuclear material production and use, and that these activities may even be militarily related. Further information regarding non-nuclear activities such as missile R&D, explosive testing and neutron source development has catalysed international fears that Iran has been, and could still be, pursuing nuclear weapons.

Although these fears are also familiar to the Board of Governors, the manner in which they are communicated in the new report will seem completely unfamiliar. For the first time, the accumulated information on the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear programme has been clearly and systematically laid out in a 15-page Annex to the report.

The majority of the detail contained within this annex has been accumulated by the Agency over a period of time from a number of different sources, and does not necessarily represent new information.

For instance, information relating to the manufacturing of undeclared uranium metals, the testing of high explosive lenses and the re-design of missile re-entry vehicles was provided to the Agency by a member state in 2005. Ten other member states have also provided the Agency with further intelligence regarding suspicious procurement activities. Aspects of this multi-source, shared intelligence have since made their way into open sources.

It is rather ironic that Iran itself has played a part in providing suspicious information to the IAEA. Between 2003 and 2006, Iran was forced to acknowledged that it had had contact with intermediaries of a clandestine nuclear supply network, and that this network had supplied procedures for producing uranium metals and enriched uranium metal hemispheres. Iran subsequently claimed that these procedures were supplied unsolicited. Finally, the Agency itself has collected evidence through open sources, satellite imagery, interviews and importantly through the safeguards activities it conducts in Iran.

Information validation in question?
Having drawn from such a variety of sources, the Agency goes to some length to describe how they concluded that the accumulated information is credible. The report states that the body of evidence has been “carefully and critically examined” and meetings have been held with states who have shared intelligence ascertain the reliability of sources. According to the Agency, despite comprising a large volume of information gleaned from a variety of sources, the evidence is “consistent in terms of technical content, individuals and organisations involved, and time frames”. It is clear that considerable effort has been made to assess not only the reliability of the sources, but also the consistency of the information.

This does not necessarily mean that the information presented is infallible or undisputed. Indeed, although Iran has acknowledged certain elements of the information, and claims to have successfully addressed the Agency’s concerns, Tehran rejects the more incriminating aspects as either forgeries or fabrications. The inclusion of a large amount of information from member states to some extent prevents these accusations from being entirely rebuffed. The IAEA itself has only been able to directly examine small portions of the original sources, and Iran has not been able to examine any. Theoretically, the consistency that seems key to the Agency’s assessment of credibility is simple to achieve if sources are either forged or fabricated.

Unfortunately, while Iran continues to withhold information requested by the Agency, and without the extra verification tools provided by the Additional Protocol, the Agency has few other information sources available. When one considers their nuclear mandate, the Agency’s access to, and use of, information relating to non-nuclear activities also becomes debatable. In particular, activities such as the development of detonators, the testing of explosive initiators, and the design of missile re-entry vehicles are not strictly nuclear-related. Here the Agency points out that although these activities do not relate directly to nuclear materials, there are few plausible explanations which do not ultimately lead to the development of a nuclear weapon.

This leaves the Agency in a bit of a bind. The information that they can collect through safeguards agreements and other Agency activities may be contemporary and simple to assess, but without full Iranian disclosure it can also be innocuous. Information acquired from member states may be potent, but when assessing the source is challenging, drawing conclusions from this information alone is risky. Finally, it is debatable whether or not the Agency has the authority to investigate activities that are not strictly related to nuclear activities.

Given the Agency’s limited ability to collect fresh information, it is not surprising that the report does not draw conclusions as to the present state of Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme. Indeed, as Mark Hibbs has noted in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, the Agency stops short of accusing Tehran of “masterminding” a secret nuclear programme. The Agency is certainly aware that establishing the credibility of their information is highly important, and it has gone to great lengths to achieve this. In fact, they reportedly went as far as calling telephone numbers written on some of the documents. The numbers checked out. While accusations of fraud and fabrication will likely remain, the onus is now more than ever on Tehran to provide more information to defend their case.

Information authenticity in an age of deception
During the Second World War, the Soviet Union successfully deployed, some would say mastered, the operational art of military deception. One of their main conclusions were that successful strategic deception depended entirely on the thoroughness of preparations on the tactical level. Both movement security, but above all communications discipline, had to be stringently enforced. But it was more than that. David Glantz argues in his book ‘Soviet Military Deception in the Second World War’ that the Germans had themselves to blame for falling for the Soviet tricks. The German High Command based their decisions on prejudice about the strength and competence of their enemy, in part due to bad pre-war estimates of Soviet strength.

In this case, however, the body of IAEA evidence points to a number of troubling conclusions. First, that the Iranian government established their nuclear program with a weapons purpose in mind. Second, that most of the weapons work may have stopped because the programme was exposed. And third, that some of the weapons work may be on-going. While all of this has been said before, the technical annex puts it all in a rather uncompromising new light.

The gravity of these conclusions are such that decisions on war and peace may hang in the balance. Such matters should, as the Germans found out during the Second World War, not be decided on prejudice and flawed intelligence. More intelligence is needed, and the Board of Governors has a critically important role to play.

In past resolutions on Iran’s nuclear programme, the Board has urged the Iranian government to comply with its own resolutions on the matter, as well as those issued by the UN Security Council. In addition, the Board has urged Iran to engage with the Agency on the resolution of all outstanding issues concerning Iran’s nuclear programme. To this end, they have asked the government to cooperate fully with the IAEA by providing such access and information that the Agency requests to resolve these issues. The Board has also asked Iran, perhaps too politely, to fully implement its Additional Protocol, and adhere to other technical instruments that would turn up the flow of safeguards information. These calls are important, and should be reiterated.

In addition, however, the role of the IAEA Secretariat needs to be clarified. In our own view, the Board ought to give its secretariat a clear mandate to investigate weaponization issues. This includes looking into how Iranian nuclear research relates to the development of high explosives, as well as the relationship with potential means of delivery. It also includes fully engaging with other organizations, for instance the CTBTO, on matters such as indicators of nuclear test site preparations.

Last changed: Nov 16 2011 at 10:08 PM

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