Commentary Magazine


How the IAEA Encourages Proliferation

The International Atomic Energy Agency is, as Jonathan noted, deeply disturbed by its latest findings on Iran. It is also deeply disturbed by its latest findings on Syria, which it detailed in another report released this week. Syria’s explanation of the uranium traces found at a Damascus research reactor did not fit the facts, the report said, nor did these traces match Syria’s declared uranium inventory. Moreover, Syria is still refusing IAEA requests for both a return visit to Dair Alzour, the site Israel bombed in September 2007, and initial visits to three military sites whose appearance was altered after inspectors asked to see them.

“Essentially, no progress has been made since the last report to clarify any of the outstanding issues,” the agency concluded.

The real mystery, however, is why the IAEA seems to find this behavior eternally surprising — because its own behavior positively demands such stonewalling.

The IAEA has been investigating Syria for more than two years now. During this time, it has issued numerous reports expressing its concern over suspicious findings that Damascus failed to adequately explain and over Syria’s refusal to let it make the inspections necessary to answer its questions. Yet it has refused to refer the case to the Security Council for sanctions, because, says agency director Mohamed ElBaradei, there is no proof of Syrian wrongdoing.

Well, of course there isn’t. That’s the whole point of Syria’s stonewalling — to prevent the agency from getting such proof!

Damascus, needless to say, is merely copying the lessons learned from the agency’s handling of Iran. After discovering in 2003 that Tehran had been lying about its nuclear program for 18 years, the agency spent the next three years refusing to turn the file over to the Security Council, saying there was no proof Iran’s secret nuclear program was aimed at producing weapons. And when the case finally did reach the Security Council, ElBaradei lobbied vehemently against sanctions, citing the lack of a “smoking gun” that would justify punishment.

Thus all Iran had to do was ensure that there never would be a smoking gun — by steadfastly refusing to comply with inspectors’ requests.

ElBaradei thereby made noncooperation the optimum strategy. Had either Syria or Iran cooperated, the agency might have obtained sufficient evidence to justify severe sanctions. But as long as they refuse to cooperate, the agency has little chance of obtaining such proof, ensuring that any repercussions will be mild. Therefore, they are free to develop nuclear weapons with impunity.

To be effective, IAEA policy would have to be the exact opposite — one of imposing stringent penalties for noncooperation, to encourage suspect countries to “come clean” and prove their innocence. And that, of course, would require suspect regimes to actually be innocent, creating a strong disincentive to secret weapons programs.

In short, under ElBaradei, the IAEA has brilliantly hit on the strategy most likely to facilitate nuclear proliferation. Is it any wonder he and the agency won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005?