With the world’s attention diverted yet again, this time by the collapse of the myth of the Arab Spring as a democratic awakening, Iran’s nuclear program powers ahead. Again, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has demonstrated its inability, even under new and better leadership, to constrain rogue states determined to possess nuclear weapons. After the IAEA passed another toothless resolution in mid-September, Iran’s ambassador to the agency complained that the measure would “only complicate the situation and endanger the cooperative environment” between the two sides. And the head of Tehran’s nuclear program claimed that the agency had been infiltrated by terrorists trying to sabotage his work. That is chutzpah.
Born in 1957, the IAEA has two missions: promoting peaceful uses of atomic energy and guarding against the spread of nuclear weapons. Although potentially a significant adjunct to U.S. counter-proliferation efforts, the IAEA, to be effective, requires two essentials: a non-political technical staff that understands its role is to report facts, not to make policy, and member governments that are collectively serious about preventing proliferation. Unique because of the palpable connection between nuclear weapons and world peace, the IAEA, unlike other U.N. specialized agencies, is linked directly to the Security Council. When the Cold War gridlocked the Council, the IAEA’s role shrank.
Its impotence was symbolized by its longtime directors general: Two Swedes were DGs consecutively from 1961 to 1997, followed by Egypt’s Mohammed ElBaradei from 1997 to 2009. Under the studiously neutral Swedes, the IAEA devoted 80 percent of its watchdog budget to scrutinizing the nuclear work of Canada, Japan, and Germany. Meanwhile, rogue states were busily ramping up covert nuclear-weapons programs that the sleepy IAEA missed.
Alarms finally rang after the 1990–91 Persian Gulf War, with the embarrassing revelation that the IAEA had overlooked Saddam Hussein’s massive nuclear-weapons project. Saddam’s original plutonium-based effort effectively ended in 1981 when Israel destroyed the Osirak reactor. The full extent of his second program, which enriched uranium, was discovered during post-war inspections required under the Security Council’s 1991 cease-fire resolution; the program was far more advanced than previously known. The IAEA’s failure to discover the scope of Saddam’s program (a failure shared by our intelligence community) should have encouraged a cautionary humility, but it did not. Instead, analysts overcompensated for past mistakes, swinging wildly from former CIA director George Tenet’s “slam dunk” overestimation of Iraq’s capabilities ten years later to the precise opposite today, after the second Gulf War — underestimation of nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.
That Iraq could have so thoroughly deceived the IAEA prompted calls in the 1990s for more stringent inspection powers, but did not alter the agency’s basic mindset. Then–director general Hans Blix understood that his agency had bungled badly, but he was too much the international bureaucrat to make significant changes.
Bad as Blix was, ElBaradei was worse. His active opposition to the IAEA’s doing anything effective to stop Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, his unwillingness to admit what was increasingly obvious to objective observers, and his distortions and concealment of information in IAEA reports transformed an already-weak organization into a cat’s paw for Iran. Worse still, ElBaradei thought it was his job to negotiate with Iran to resolve Tehran’s quest for nuclear weapons, which he did heedless of what IAEA members such as the U.S., Britain, and France wanted. He undercut Security Council efforts, feeble though they invariably were, and helped convince Iran’s leaders that Western attempts to stop them could always be thwarted by enabling ElBaradei’s presumptuousness. One day, years hence, when the transcripts of intercepted conversation from the world’s intelligence agencies find their way into the sunlight, we will see just how closely ElBaradei and Iran colluded. Until then, we can judge his tenure by his public obstructionism toward the United States, his apologies for Iran, and his repeated efforts to subvert the work of his own nuclear inspectors.
It is simply not the place of an international civil servant to act beyond the control of his agency’s member governments. ElBaradei’s arrogance also surfaced in the handling of Libya’s nuclear-weapons program. Britain and the United States convinced Moammar Qaddafi to renounce his nuclear aspirations after Saddam’s overthrow and capture and after the seizure in 2003 of critical uranium-enrichment equipment as it was being shipped to Tripoli. When ElBaradei was briefed on this triumph and informed that Libya’s nuclear materials would be moved to Oak Ridge, Tenn., for safekeeping and for use in our efforts against the A. Q. Khan proliferation network, he exploded. Instead of welcoming this significant counter-proliferation victory, he took offense, actually contending that we should have taken no further action when our intelligence uncovered Qaddafi’s program but should instead have handed the matter over to him. He also objected to shipping the Libyan assets to Oak Ridge rather than delivering them into his untrustworthy hands. British and American diplomats alike were amazed at this display of narcissism, but it was all in a day’s work for ElBaradei.
The IAEA was hampered on Iran not only by ElBaradei but also by the inability of its member states to get serious about Tehran’s nuclear program. The IAEA’s board of governors (known quite accurately by its acronym, “BOG”) never overcame “the spirit of Vienna,” the absurd notion that it should act by consensus — that is, unanimously. Under this gauzy bromide, Iran or its supporters serving on the BOG could readily water down and render impotent any IAEA efforts to halt and expose its illicit activities. And ElBaradei made matters worse by openly resisting efforts to move the main U.N. focus on Iran from the IAEA to the Security Council, because doing so would have diminished his personal role and his ability to be Iran’s humble servant.
Of course, the Security Council suffered from its own inadequacies because Russia and China were flying political cover for Tehran, eviscerating sanctions resolutions, and otherwise preventing the Council from acting effectively. This combination of IAEA weakness, Russian-Chinese obstructionism, and, sadly, Western unwillingness to force the issue early (when the potential risks and costs would have been far lower) has left us with no attractive options. We now face an incredibly risky future in which either Iran gets nuclear weapons or someone uses preemptive military force to prevent it from doing so.
In 2009, Japan’s Yukiya Amano was elected the director general of the IAEA. He hews precisely to the correct model for a U.N. agency head: carrying out its mission professionally under the policy direction of member governments. Amano brings to the job Japan’s profound awareness of the destructiveness of nuclear weapons and a genuine desire to tell the truth, with no fear of the consequences. IAEA inspectors have rejoiced at their newfound freedom, a freedom ElBaradei denied them, to report the facts they uncover and to simply do their jobs.
But the Amano model is only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for an effective IAEA. Even a skilled and dedicated international civil servant cannot succeed if his member governments are collectively feckless. The IAEA and the Security Council are still failing to stop Iran, because an international organization is never more than the sum of its members, and in many cases it is less. We might wish for more, but that would be unrealistic. At least now the IAEA’s leader is a man of ability and integrity who tells the truth, courageously. Perhaps a new U.S. administration will explore whether it can install his like throughout the U.N. system.
Mr. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This article was originally published by the National Review.