Give the IAEA Teeth

The UN’s nuclear proliferation conference will be useless unless the IAEA is empowered to punish violators.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) does not currently provide the sufficient tools to counter the rising threats of nuclear proliferation. The progress of rogue states such as Iran and North Korea toward becoming established nuclear states has prompted great concern that other countries may proceed in the same manner, and develop their own nuclear programs. Reports convened by the IAEA, UN and the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) have all expressed concern over the prospect of increased proliferation. The NPR report states:

Concerns have grown in recent years that unless today’s dangerous trends are arrested and reversed, before long we will be living in a world with a steadily growing number of nuclear-armed states and an increasing likelihood of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons. Therefore, for the first time, the 2010 NPR places this priority atop the U.S. nuclear agenda.

The reports from the IAEA and UN gave a similar outlook toward the possible spread of technologies allowing states to produce nuclear-weapons materials. Though the issue of nuclear proliferation is of vital importance to policy makers, the NPT won’t be able to deal with the rising risk of nonproliferation.

President Obama has noted that the NPT is “starting to fray around the edges over the last several years,” and has consequently expressed a commitment to revamp the U.S.’s nuclear strategy, though he has affirmed his faith in the Treaty. But his goodwill won’t resolve the main problem—namely, that the necessary mechanisms to verify the development of nuclear materials in other countries, let alone to enforce the provisions of the NPT, have not been implemented. Because of the bureaucratic nature of the IAEA, this issue will most likely not be successfully and adequately addressed during the May NPT Review Conference. So far, all statements from the IAEA criticizing the noncompliance of various regimes have been half-hearted and effectively inadequate, showing its shortcomings in addressing rule breakers.

The purpose of the May meeting is to assess “how well the provisions of the NPT have been implemented and for charting a course forward.” The Carnegie Endowment’s Deepti Choubey, has noted that previous preparatory conferences have failed both to provide such assessments and discuss substantive issues, instead only managing to approve the agenda. These conferences do provide the framework for progress, though obstacles to success remain. For example, during the 2008 preparatory meetings, the participating parties’ inability to reach a consensus created a deadlock, which prevented summaries from being attached to the formal report of the conference. Similar institutional defects will probably prevent the success of this year’s conference.

Even if a consensus was reached and a joint decision made against a NPT signatory violating the document, the party in question could withdraw from the Treaty. Withdrawal from the agreement undermines all possible measures to verify if the state is producing nuclear weapons. Under Article X of the NPT, a party may leave the treaty if “extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.” North Korea employed this clause as its rationale for withdrawing from the NPT in 2003.

Even if the international community determined a decisive response toward noncompliant parties, the lack of clear-cut measures for identifying noncompliance and enforcing repercussions for misconduct presents a major hurdle for the IAEA. Since the IAEA’s function is limited to the verification of the NPT, it is unable to enforce the Treaty’s legal requirements, consequently limiting the ability of the organization to promote such compliance. For instance, the IAEA is not obligated to report to the UN Security Council, which could take action against any NPT violators.

Under the current system, the IAEA’s inspections must first meet the approval of the state in question. This scheme renders all such inspections essentially useless. Offending states can keep illicit activities and materials hidden from inspectors. Iran is a recent example. The IAEA cannot and should not depend on parties willingly disclosing all information regarding their nuclear activities. There is not even a guarantee that suspect states would grant access to the organization.

Thus the IAEA is unable to effectively enforce compliance with the NPT. However, there are some proposals to address this problem. Paul Lettow of the Council on Foreign Relations offers one such strategy. He recommends modifying all nonproliferation agreements to provide for the non-termination upon withdrawal. His proposal directly empowers the IAEA, which is a necessary measure for future verification effectiveness. Furthermore, under this proposal, if a noncompliant country withdrew and disregarded its NPT obligations, it would automatically be considered a threat to international security. Suppliers could then implement clauses in their contracts that would require withdrawing states to return all nuclear materials.

Most other proposals have been generally inadequate for formulating effective policy. President Obama, the NPR, and the IAEA report have all refrained from providing specific and clear measures for improving the methods to verify and prevent nuclear proliferation.