National Security

Intel Inside

Has the IAEA's information become politicized?

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.

The leak of the document to AP in fact transpired in the way that critics of "intelligence-driven safeguards" fear. According to AP, the document was "leaked by officials from a country critical of Iran's atomic program to bolster their arguments that Iran's nuclear program must be halted before it produces a weapon."  In Vienna last week, speculation was rife that the document was leaked by disgruntled Israeli or Western officials to prevent the United States and other countries on the U.N. Security Council from trying to negotiate a solution to the crisis with Iran.

Amano rightly refused to confirm or deny whether the IAEA was familiar with the leaked document. But the episode underscores the need for the IAEA to carefully manage information from third parties, especially information that makes sensitive allegations on the basis of the intelligence findings of member states.

The IAEA is moving forward with State-Level safeguards for sound reasons, having learned that states are willing to risk that violations of their IAEA safeguards agreements would not be detected, and also that states are unwilling to provide the IAEA bigger budgets to keep track of increasing nuclear activity worldwide. But if in the future the IAEA is going to use more types of information to judge states' compliance with their safeguards, governments will cooperate only if they have confidence that the information will be appropriately handled.

Increasingly over the last two decades, the IAEA has gained experience in handling third-party data, and it has put in place a management system to process, evaluate, and protect its information. The less sensitive data is, the easier it is to manage. If the IAEA has questions about the credibility of open-source data, it can directly communicate with the managers of open-source databases. Far, far pricklier is sensitive and classified information from a member state that alleges that another country is engaged in clandestine activities. A country might give the IAEA photos pointing to undisclosed activities somewhere else, but beforehand the evidence will be degraded, making it more difficult to authenticate.

Debate in the media over the meaning of the leaked Iran document probably resembled internal discussion of how to interpret some documentary evidence obtained by the IAEA. Conversations with enough people who might know have persuaded me that the IAEA had likely seen and evaluated the document before it was leaked to the press, and that there was an internal discussion at the IAEA about whether the document was genuine and what it implied.

Amano said last week he is willing to respond to member states' questions concerning the future of the IAEA's safeguards system. Before that happens, the IAEA and P-5 states should try to address and resolve the apparently weighty reservations that Russia has voiced this year. We don't know exactly what the details are. Russia may have specific technical issues with the evolution of IAEA safeguards, but its interventions during closed IAEA meetings suggest it has more principled, lingering concerns about how safeguards judgments will be made in the future.

Ultimately, however, the IAEA's credibility in judging third-party information in critical situations rests upon the shoulders of its director general. In 2003, Amano's predecessor, Mohamed El Baradei, concluded that intelligence asserting that Iraq had restarted clandestine nuclear work was not genuine. In part for that, he and the agency were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Six years later, Amano judged intelligence on Iran to be authentic, and he took a calculated risk in making his findings public. For over a year, these weighty allegations have not been admitted by Iran. How Amano handles them now may be critical to whether the P-5+1 can strike a deal with Iran in the months ahead.

Safeguards is where the rubber hits the road in the fight against nuclear proliferation. Keeping them effective involves unspectacular detail work carried out by technical experts. Over the last decade, specialists have been quietly changing the architecture of the safeguards system, but they haven't explained things to the outside world -- including the IAEA's member states. Some countries now have concerns. Careful management of third-party information is essential for the IAEA's credibility. If the IAEA doesn't carefully and sufficiently address these matters, a coalition of unwilling member states could set back further evolution of safeguards to snuff out future clandestine activities.     

ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Missile Creep

Was giving Patriots to Turkey a step toward war in Syria?

In 1913, General Otto Liman von Sanders became the head of the German military mission to the Ottoman Empire, part of a long line of Prussian advisers to Ottoman forces. Almost exactly a century on, up to 400 of Sanders's successors will be making the same trip, this time accompanied by a Patriot missile defense system. It will be the third Patriot deployment to that country since the end of the Cold War.

The deployment is being heralded as a major development in the conflict within Syria, even being compared on Al Jazeera, quite absurdly, to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Rumors -- some seemingly encouraged by Turkish officials, others by Russians -- have declared that this is the first step to the establishment of a no-fly zone. Others have suggested that the Patriots are the prelude to an Israeli strike on Iran. The truth, however, is much more prosaic.

As the Syrian civil war has intensified, to the point where the CIA estimates Assad has only a couple of months left, Turkey has grown increasingly anxious at the spillover and frustrated at its failure to make the case for overt military intervention.

Syria has one of the most formidable arrays of ballistic missiles in the region, built around the ubiquitous Scud. Syria's arsenal is mostly comprised of short-range missiles, each with limited numbers of launchers. There are no reliable public estimates for the size of Syria's inventory, but Turkey's foreign minister has put the number at 700.

But the road-mobile and liquid-fueled Scud-D has a range of 700 kilometers, capable of striking nearly all Turkish territory, including the capital Ankara, if fired from northern launching points. Northern Syria will likely slip out of Assad's hands in short course. Nonetheless, Ankara and other cities remain within range of western launch-points in the coastal areas, where the regime might find a stronger political base. Syria is also believed to possess an array of chemical weapons, some of which are alleged to have been prepared for use over the last week. There are conflicting assessments as to which of Syria's missiles are chemical-capable, but various U.S. government estimates suggest at least a portion of Syria's Scud force is equipped for the task.

Turkey's concerns are threefold. First, desperate regimes can make desperate choices. In 1991, Saddam Hussein fired 88 Scuds at Israel and coalition forces during the First Gulf War. Last year, Colonel Gaddafi fired a Scud-B at rebels in eastern Libya, just one week before his regime was deposed. Turkey, having hosted and helped arm the Syrian opposition on its soil, is a prime target. Second, Ankara may be concerned that Syrian missiles aimed at rebel-held positions near the northern border could overfly their targets and strike Turkish territory. Third, Turkey -- despite its threats of unilateral action -- has made it a priority to pull NATO into the conflict. Yet Turkey's allies are largely unaffected by issues such as Kurdish empowerment in Syria or mass refugee flows. Patriot deployment is a relatively simple means for NATO to demonstrate alliance solidarity and protect against remote but serious ballistic missile threats -- while minimizing its exposure to the civil war itself.

This is where the specific features of the Patriot become important. The Turkish Foreign Ministry is rumored to have leaked news that the Patriots were part of a broader plan to enforce a no-fly zone, a prospect that worried German legislators debating the deployment. Turkish officials appear to have made that leak partly to deter Syrian military action near the border area by generating further ambiguity over the status of airspace and the risk of escalation -- and to force NATO's hand by creating a diplomatic fait accompli.

In truth, the Patriot has a tightly circumscribed military role and is ill-suited for the expansive military intervention for which Turkey has been clamoring. The system is comprised of a ground-based radar and three generations of interceptor missiles, two of which -- the PAC-2/GEM and more advanced PAC-3 -- are employed for missile defense purposes.

Typically, a Patriot battery includes both missiles. Turkey is reported to have requested 15 batteries so as to ensure complete territorial coverage. NATO officials deemed that excessive and appear to have committed to sending up to six batteries. Germany and the Netherlands are reportedly sending two batteries each, and the United States an additional two. Each battery is likely to hold 16 interceptors. The actual battery is only manned by three people, but the support staff will likely include up to 100 soldiers per deployment.

Both types of interceptors are capable of engaging and destroying not just missiles, but also aircraft and, depending on their placement, low-flying helicopters. Patriot operators could theoretically track and destroy a large proportion of Syrian aircraft approaching parts of the border. The PAC-3, which has a forward-facing fuze and a warhead designed to intercept faster and higher-flying ballistic missiles, is sufficiently maneuverable to intercept relatively slow-flying jets. But the older, less expensive PAC-2s are better suited to an anti-aircraft role.

Both missiles provide some protection for Turkish population centers in range of Syrian missiles. Depending on where you put the radar and interceptor sites, they are also capable of protecting a zone roughly 50-100 kilometers into Syrian territory. This could bring key battlegrounds in the civil war, such as the city of Aleppo, within range.

However, there is reason to accept the NATO secretary general's pledge that "any deployment would be defensive only" and "would in no way support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation." The enforcement of a no-fly zone requires the establishment of robust and capable command-and-control arrangements and the careful deconfliction of airspace. As such, these zones have historically been handled with aircraft. The Turkish air force participated in the NATO effort in Bosnia and also hosted American aircraft that enforced the no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan during the 1990s. But neither NATO nor Turkey has released any information suggesting that they are putting in place the prerequisites for an aircraft-enforced no-fly zone.

While the Patriot system can provide some anti-aircraft coverage, it would be incomplete and extremely expensive. A single PAC-3 missile costs $3-4 million. Moreover, configuring Patriots to engage lower and slower-flying targets -- like aircraft -- presents other dangers. During the 2003 Iraq War, an American Patriot battery downed a British Tornado jet, killing its crew; a U.S. Navy F/A-18 was also shot down; and a U.S. F-16 was forced to destroy a ground-based radar that had "painted" the jet.

Even against missiles, the Patriot cannot be treated as a panacea. For a start, it doesn't cover short-range rockets or artillery shells -- the only projectiles that have actually crossed the border thus far. Moreover, the system has well-documented flaws that could limit its effectiveness against a Syrian Scud attack. During the first Gulf War, the Iraqi Scuds' irregular ballistic trajectories confused the first-generation PAC-2, to the point where its hit-rate may have been startlingly low -- near zero percent, according to three independent studies.

Although low hit-rates are undesirable under ordinary circumstances, they are especially worrying in the context of WMD warheads. If the conditions are favorable, the delivery of sarin by a short-range rocket outfitted with small cluster munitions -- which the Patriot is not designed to intercept anyway -- could, according to Jonathan Tucker's War of Nerves, "generate a lethal concentration of the nerve agent over a 500 meter area, not including downwind spread." However, the actual number of casualties would depend on other environmental factors and Turkish preparedness, thus it would be very difficult to assess with any accuracy. Nevertheless, a very small number of successful strikes could have a disproportionate strategic effect.

While improvements have been made since, the PAC-3 has yet to be tested against Scuds in battlefield conditions. Critically, if Syrian Scuds break up while in flight -- a common occurrence when Iraq used similar missiles during the first Gulf War -- the interceptor could be confused and miss its target.

The upshot of all this is that the Patriot deployment serves two purposes. First, it serves as a defensive move, aimed at protecting Turkish territory against a narrow range of threats. Second, it acts as a tangible political signal, with NATO personnel operating in Turkey. Not quite a trip wire, but better than reassuring words. In short, both Turkey and NATO are eager to maintain flexibility. Turkey has been unwilling to make the political decision to engage Syrian targets on Syrian territory other than in sporadic time- and space-limited retaliatory salvos. The deployment of Patriot missiles is not a step to intervention, but a compromise that keeps NATO at arms-length.

BERND WUSTNECK/AFP/Getty Images