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Hibbs on The IAEA’s State Level Approach to Safeguards


Hibbs on The IAEA's State Level Approach to Safeguards

In his most recent, and to my mind, revealing examination of the evolution of the IAEA safeguards regime, Carnegie Senior Associate Mark Hibbs lays out some critical issues facing the evolution of the Agency’s central nuclear watchdog function.  What he finds is a swirling morass of political jockeying, an ongoing struggle by an agency struggling to maintain its objectivity, and member states who are keen to bend it to serve their own needs.  But, in the final analysis, the implementation of safeguards remains one of the world’s most important tools for preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and associated material and know-how.

[Note that I say “one” of the most important tools.  There are a whole host of other, equally important bi- and multi-lateral tools that, when taken together with safeguards, constitute a SYSTEM of control over nuclear materials, weapons and know-how.  So, the contention that a treaty, like the NPT for example, doesn’t work because of what Iran, Syria, Iraq or North Korea has been able to do, is to inaccurately heap blame on any one element of that system.  What detractors fail to understand is that the system only works when most if not all of its parts also work.  But, that’s another blog post.]

To most, the implementation of safeguards and the minutiae surrounding that system is the work of green eyeshade types and nuclear bean counters.  Rarely are the curtains drawn to reveal what happens in and around the meetings of the Board of Governors, particularly regarding safeguards.  The only story most want to tell is when a country breaks the rules and does something shifty with regard to its safeguards agreement – i.e. Iran – or downright illegal – i.e. Syria.  If the IAEA fails to catch a transgression, critics pile on and accuse the IAEA of inefficacy. But few tell the story of how the IAEA constantly works to strengthen the very regime that hopes to prevent another Iran or North Korea.  And few tell the story about how member state wrangling can often block the Agency’s more ambitious plans to hone its safeguards function.

As an avid, meticulous student and observer of this important of all IAEA functions for more than twenty years, Hibbs does a terrific job of describing what could be a critical junction in the history of safeguards.

In his piece, he notes that the Agency has been developing a “state level approach” to safeguards, in which it aims to “derive a holistic picture of a states’ entire nuclear program to obtain any clues that the state might be engaged in undeclared nuclear activities.”  A 2010 long-term safeguards plan for 2012-23 has been developed, he writes, which aims to “elaborate further on the state-level approach and to extend its application.”

Most interesting, however, are his descriptions of the internal battles being waged between the Agency and a number of its member states; notably, Russia, Argentina and Brazil.  The Russian government, it turns out, has signaled a sea-change in its approach to safeguards which, according to Hibbs and other insiders, is quite the “volte-face”.  Up until its proclamations at the June Board meeting, the Russian government has been totally on board the innovating and evolving the safeguards bandwagon.  But, with the discussion now centering on codification of the state-level approach, the Russians have jumped off.  They are contending that the state-specific approach is discriminatory.  Hibbs suggests that this could be part of Putin’s “get tough on the West” policy.  But, the pushback at the IAEA by Russia is a bit of an anomaly given Russian behavior in other nuke venues, like the Nuclear Suppliers Group, where they have been more cooperative.

Hibbs on The IAEA's State Level Approach to Safeguards

So, is Russia’s pushback on the Agency’s state level approach really a signal from the Putin government that it won’t be pushed around by the West and that the IAEA is simply another of the West’s tools to enforce its own policies?  Could it be that they are unhappy with all the Iran-bashing?  After all, Russia has consistently been playing defense for Iran when it comes to allegations of a covert nuclear weapons program?  Or is it something more mundane, like simply wanting more detail which, when provided, can convince them to re-board the state level approach train?

Hibbs also hints at a broader political issue related to the West’s strong support for DG Amano’s tenure vis a vis the developing countries.  Historically, they – represented by the “Non-Aligned Movement” – have been quite vocal about balancing the IAEA’s safeguards role with the nuclear development encompassed in Article IV of the NPT.  Many of them are not happy that safeguards often suck the wind out of the nuclear cooperation sails. And, since most of them do not have sizable nuclear programs, nor plans to establish them, their commitment to more effective safeguards is minimal, at best.  This despite the fact that nonproliferation is a public good and preventing the “bad guys” from getting nukes a universally good thing.

Whatever the reason for pushback by Russia, the NAM and others, the Agency is slated to report to the Board of Governors next June with additional details regarding its evolving state level approach.



Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.