June 30, 2021 | International Organizations Monograph

International Atomic Energy Agency

June 30, 2021 | International Organizations Monograph

International Atomic Energy Agency


In 1957, UN member states established the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to facilitate international cooperation to promote peaceful uses of atomic energy, provide assistance on nuclear safety, and prevent nuclear materials from being diverted toward military uses.1 In 1970, parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) expanded the IAEA’s mission to include verifying states’ compliance with the treaty.2

Article III of the NPT requires the treaty’s non-nuclear-weapon states parties to conclude a “comprehensive safeguards agreement” (CSA) with the IAEA. Under the CSA, states must provide the agency with specific information about nuclear facilities and activities, and in turn, the IAEA conducts on-site inspections to ensure the non-diversion of nuclear material.3

The United States serves on the IAEA’s 35-member policymaking body, the Board of Governors. The United States is the largest contributor to the IAEA, providing roughly $200 million annually, or 25 percent of the agency’s regular budget.4 In 2019, the board elected IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi to a four-year term. The director general oversees the Vienna-based IAEA Secretariat, which verifies NPT compliance.


In the 1980s and 1990s, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, and Taiwan covertly established or furthered nuclear weapons programs despite IAEA safeguards.5 In response, the Board of Governors recognized that the IAEA has an obligation under the CSA to ascertain not only the “correctness” of states’ CSA declarations, but also their “completeness.” Thus, the board determined that regardless of inspection deficiencies that previously allowed states to hide proliferation activities, the agreement empowers the IAEA to investigate undeclared nuclear activities.6

In 1997, the Board of Governors authorized states to conclude a voluntary supplementary agreement to the CSA, known as the Additional Protocol (AP).7 The AP enables “the IAEA inspectorate to provide assurance about both declared and possible undeclared activities. Under the Protocol, the IAEA is granted expanded rights of access to information and sites” provided under the CSA.8 As of early 2021, 136 of the IAEA’s 172 member states and Euratom have an AP in force, reflecting a majority in favor of strengthened safeguards.9

The IAEA began investigating Iran in 2002 following revelations that Tehran had undeclared fuel-cycle facilities and activities with military nuclear dimensions. Iran provisionally implemented the AP from 2003 to 2006 and provisionally implemented it again as of January 2016 under the nuclear accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Tehran suspended implementation in early 2021. The IAEA failed to utilize the CSA and AP to fully verify Iran’s nuclear activities.

In 2018, Israel seized an Iranian archive documenting Tehran’s secret nuclear activities, prompting the IAEA to begin investigating new information about undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.10 The IAEA inspected and found undeclared uranium particles at three related Iranian sites. Tehran is currently stonewalling the inspectors.11

The United States and the European parties to the JCPOA are currently negotiating Washington’s and Tehran’s return to the nuclear accord, following the U.S. withdrawal in May 2018 and Iran’s subsequent drawdown of its commitments.12


A lesson for the IAEA and its member states is that all states must implement the AP. The IAEA must use all available tools to detect undeclared nuclear activities.

  • The Biden administration should urge more states to implement AP safeguards as a check against clandestine nuclear weapons programs. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are two countries with growing nuclear activities. They can instill confidence by applying the AP with its enhanced safeguards.
  • The IAEA must make full use of its AP authorities. The IAEA should not repeat its flawed approach to Iran, where the agency refrained from requesting access to sites where Tehran likely conducted or furthered military nuclear activities. For example, the IAEA still has not requested access to numerous sites detailed in the nuclear archive.
  • The Biden administration should urge the IAEA to review its existing safeguards system and assess how it missed safeguards violations in Iran. The IAEA should develop recommendations to improve its capabilities going forward.
  • Under its CSA authorities, the IAEA should request deep inspections and access to all Iranian sites, personnel, and documentation potentially related to ongoing nuclear weaponization research. Tehran’s efforts to maintain a nuclear weapons option violates Iran’s NPT commitments.
  • The Biden administration should support the IAEA’s ongoing investigation and encourage the Board of Governors to vote to hold Tehran accountable. This should happen regardless of the status of the current nuclear negotiations.
  • Congress should act as a legislative check on the Biden administration’s actions regarding Iran’s nuclear program, including sanctions relief, and hold hearings with senior administration officials to ascertain the status of negotiations. One option is for the administration to permit a bipartisan group of lawmakers to observe nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic.
  • Should the Biden administration re-enter the JCPOA, the IAEA should prepare for the proliferation of enrichment and reprocessing technologies in the Middle East. Indeed, the JCPOA permits Iran to maintain and grow its enrichment program to levels that would enable a dash to nuclear weapons. Tehran’s rivals may seek to match its capabilities.


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