February 3, 2022 | Policy Brief

IAEA Makes Vital Push for Improved Safeguards

The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is spearheading a campaign to improve the agency’s ability to detect potential nuclear weapons development by member states. This effort is urgently needed because of the erosion of the IAEA’s ability to oversee states’ compliance with the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

State parties to the NPT are required to conclude a comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) with the IAEA, placing certain nuclear material, facilities, and activities under agency oversight. Since taking office in December 2019, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi has sent letters to nine member states that have not yet concluded a CSA, urging them to do so. Two of those countries have since brought their agreements into force.

In 1997, IAEA member states approved the Additional Protocol (AP), a supplementary but voluntary safeguards agreement endowing the IAEA with enhanced verification authorities and improved oversight over states’ nuclear activities. The AP compensates for inadequacies in the IAEA’s ability to detect proliferation using only the CSA. In the 1980s and 1990s, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, and Taiwan covertly established or furthered nuclear weapons programs despite having CSAs.

The AP grants the IAEA additional access to a state’s nuclear program, allows the agency to inspect sites that contain no nuclear material but may fundamentally relate to a country’s nuclear activities, and enhances the IAEA’s ability to detect states’ undeclared use of nuclear material for weapons development. Member states must also provide more information about their nuclear activities.

Nearly 140 of about 186 states with safeguards in place implement the AP. On Tuesday, Grossi sent a letter to more than 40 countries, encouraging them to implement the AP. He underscored that “[w]ithout an AP in force the IAEA is not able to draw the conclusion that all nuclear material remains in peaceful activities in a State.”

Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are key countries that have not signed onto the AP. Tehran agreed to provisionally adhere to the AP as part of the 2015 nuclear deal but ceased doing so in February 2021. These countries represent outliers in the Middle East, where additional nuclear proliferation is a serious concern. Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates all apply the AP. Israel is not a member of the NPT but is a member of the IAEA.

Grossi is also tackling weaknesses in another safeguards element known as the Small Quantities Protocol (SQP), which holds certain CSA provisions in abeyance for states without significant nuclear material, facilities, or activities. In 2005, the IAEA Board of Governors approved a revised SQP to enhance the original SQP’s monitoring and inspection authorities. In September 2020, Grossi described the old SQP system as a “weakness in the IAEA safeguards system.” He sent letters to 31 countries that same month, encouraging them to adopt the revised SQP or to rescind it altogether and implement their CSAs and the AP. Eight countries have since complied with Grossi’s request. Notably, Saudi Arabia, which plans to launch significant nuclear facilities and activities, has not yet complied.

The director general’s efforts are commendable and necessary to enhance the IAEA’s monitoring and inspection authorities and its ability to ensure states’ nuclear activities remain peaceful. The Biden administration should fully support the agency’s campaign.

The administration can also support the IAEA by censuring Iran at the IAEA Board of Governors for Tehran’s obstruction of the agency’s 3.5-year investigation into Iran’s undeclared nuclear activities, as well as for the Islamic Republic’s continued, threatening nuclear advances. As part of that censure, Washington should underscore that Iran must fully ratify the AP and subject its nuclear activities to complete IAEA oversight.

Absent full IAEA safeguards over Tehran’s nuclear program, including over Iranian technical advances that Grossi has said have no justifiable civilian purposes, Tehran’s nuclear proliferation may irreparably harm the IAEA’s safeguards mission.

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow. Anthony previously served in the U.S. government for more than 19 years, most recently as senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the U.S. National Security Council. They both contribute to FDD’s Iran Program, International Organizations Program, and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from the authors, the Iran Program, the International Organizations Program, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea and Anthony on Twitter @StrickerNonpro and @NatSecAnthony. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_Iran and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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