The headline of an alarming report published by the Associated Press two weeks ago said that an Iranian document with some nuclear weapon yield calculations written on it "suggests that Iran is working on a bomb." That, however, was not why the document was significant: there's already plenty of evidence supporting the allegation that Iran has done nuclear weapons-related work since the late 1980s. Some of it suggests this work has continued until recently. The piece of paper aired by the AP will not and cannot provide additional support for that claim because we don't know enough about it.
The true significance of this document is that it landed in our e-mailboxes in the midst of renewed internal debate about how the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should determine whether member states are in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations. Beginning two decades ago, the IAEA started relying less on information it gathers during its own field inspections alone and more on information that others provide, most of which is open-source, but some of which is not. This third-party data has become central to the IAEA's work, and it is about to become even more so. The leak of the graph to the AP underscores that if this data isn't rigorously vetted and handled carefully, the IAEA's technical and political credibility will be seriously compromised.
The IAEA's increased reliance on third-party information is one very important consequence of a slow-motion revolution that has been underway at the Vienna agency since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Following the revelation that Iraq had hidden from IAEA inspectors a massive nuclear weapons program -- and as the IAEA learned that other countries (Egypt, North and South Korea, Iran, and Syria) had concealed some of their nuclear work -- the agency has become increasingly focused on finding clandestine activities, and less on doing routine inspections of activities that states have already declared.
But data-processing scientists and engineers aren't by nature good communicators. Especially during the last decade of this sea change in the IAEA's thinking, many member states were out of the loop. As its technical experts tinkered with the architecture of the safeguards system, the IAEA minted a succession of new labels meant to capture the essence of what it was trying to accomplish. The IAEA coined the term "information-driven safeguards" to emphasize that it would in the future be using lots of data sources to search for clues that countries might be doing things they weren't reporting. Thereafter came another moniker -- "integrated safeguards" -- to neatly circumscribe the IAEA's plan to increase effectiveness while reducing the routine workload where appropriate. During the last decade, two more labels -- the "State-Level Concept" and the "State-Level Approach" (only cognoscenti understood the difference) -- were used to describe how the IAEA plans to tailor safeguards to the peculiarities of each country.
Especially because the IAEA informed members that under State-Level safeguards each country would be subject to a unique but also non-negotiable regimen, it was only a matter of time before at least a few countries asked the IAEA to explain how all these developments fit together to make one comprehensive verification system.
That time is now. In September, member states collectively asked Director General Yukiya Amano to explain them to the IAEA's Board of Governors, the agency's most important policymaking organ, sometime in 2013. In the background looms Iran, the most high-profile case where the IAEA is using lots of third-party information to develop a complete picture of a country's nuclear program.
There is "basic support" for changes the IAEA wants to make in the safeguards system, Amano told the Council on Foreign Relations on December 6. But member states -- endowed with sovereign rights expressed in their safeguards agreements -- are questioning "how far we should go" in extending the scope of State-Level safeguards, he said.
Take Russia, for instance. When one year ago Amano suggested that Iran had been doing nuclear weapons work -- a suggestion based in part on intelligence provided by member states -- Moscow cried foul. Over the last several years, Russian diplomats have used the phrase "intelligence-driven" instead of "information-driven" to describe -- and criticize -- the IAEA's new safeguards approach. How can Moscow be sure that the IAEA, on the basis of bad information, won't provide cover for interference by the United States and its allies in places where Russia has its own allies and interests? Russia was not pleased with the handling of information obtained by the IAEA which showed that a former scientist in the Soviet nuclear weapons complex had worked in Iran, and it was taken by surprise when U.S. intelligence revealed in 2009 that Iran had secretly built a uranium-enrichment plant at Fordo. This year, Moscow challenged the IAEA's plans to move forward with its safeguards program and argued that it should be formally approved by member states.
Then there's Iran. On self-proclaimed behalf of over a hundred non-aligned countries, Iran has selectively embraced Russia's rhetoric. A few days after the AP broke its story on the nuclear weapons document, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, spelled out in the IAEA boardroom what in Iran's view the revelation was all about: "Some Western countries, specifically the U.S., under the pretext of Iran's nuclear issue [and] allegations of possible military dimensions [to Iran's nuclear program] want to change the IAEA's mandate to intelligence-driven safeguards in order to be able to enter the national security domain of member states, mainly developing countries, without any restrictions." In other words, the IAEA's intended modifications of its safeguards system are actually all about Western countries spying on weaker states.