Keep the Nuclear Watchdog Neutral

By Michael A. Levi
Saturday, December 10, 2005

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, will receive the Nobel Peace Prize today at ceremonies in Oslo. This award has been interpreted by many as a vote for conciliation over confrontation in the fight against the spread of nuclear arms, and to be sure, the less hawkish option has certainly been ElBaradei's preference.

But to so interpret this Nobel Prize, or to give it any other narrow political reading, shortchanges the atomic energy agency. To effectively do its job of spotlighting illegal behavior, the IAEA must in fact assiduously preserve its neutrality, not only between countries but between the different arms control strategies those countries prefer. By shining a light on illicit behavior, but then standing back, the IAEA provides other parties with powerful ammunition for more effective diplomacy and more forceful confrontation -- a far greater contribution than supporting any one approach alone.

The Nobel Peace Prize is being awarded for "efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes." But precisely what have those efforts been? The IAEA cannot coerce: It has no armies with which to control nuclear arsenals; nor does it place a country's stockpiles under inviolable lock and key. It cannot induce: The IAEA has no incentives to offer to states that forgo nuclear arms. Nor does it provide a forum where major proliferation threats are resolved; these have been dealt with outside the IAEA process. The IAEA does not, in any direct sense, prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes.

And yet the agency is indispensable to that task. It provides what no other body does: reliable, impartial and irreplaceable information about nuclear programs in hard-to-penetrate states. In the past three years it has provided information from inside Iran, Iraq and North Korea -- information that no individual nation could have obtained.

It has also provided information from states judged not to be pursuing nuclear arms, such as Brazil, South Africa and Saudi Arabia. When the cost of confronting proliferators is high, firm knowledge that a state is not pursuing nuclear arms is as important as information about those that are. Equally important: Reliable knowledge that certain states are not seeking nuclear arms allows their neighbors to avoid pursuing their own nuclear programs, forestalling a series of arms races. The IAEA may never have explicitly resolved a proliferation crisis, but these contributions to nuclear security are more than enough to deserve the prize.

The IAEA model provides an ingenious route to acquiring information. It relies on a country's desire to convince others that it is not pursuing nuclear arms. Such a country will voluntarily invite the IAEA to inspect activities on its territory, and the agency in turn will report its findings to the broader community of nations. When states behave well, IAEA inspections help them avoid scrutiny. When they engage in illegal acts, IAEA exposure (or refusal of inspections) enables a full spectrum of efforts, from diplomatic to coercive, to oppose them. The hawkish American approach to Iran and the more conciliatory European tack were both made possible by earlier IAEA efforts that exposed Iranian cheating. The agency's inspections in Iraq were similarly used as the basis for divergent disarmament strategies.

With a host of proliferation challenges facing us, it is tempting for the IAEA to throw its weight and its new prestige behind a particular political approach. But were it to do so, and thereby lose its image of political neutrality, its core function would be endangered. If states saw themselves diverging politically from the IAEA, and hence did not trust it to report faithfully on their activities, they might bar the agency from their territories. Were other countries, for similar reasons, to question the impartiality of the IAEA's reports, they would begin to ignore its findings.

The inspection-focused IAEA and a political IAEA cannot coexist. The agency can either enable the community of states to find solutions to Iran and other problems or it can attempt to find solutions itself, but it cannot do both.

It appears that ElBaradei is tempted to defy this tension. Under his leadership, the IAEA has been far more effective as an inspection agency than it was under his predecessor, Hans Blix. But in the past two years he has increasingly styled himself champion of a certain global nuclear order, issuing pronouncements on regional crises and great-power nuclear disarmament -- all of which are beyond the IAEA mandate. His proposals often reflect a certain wisdom, yet this much is clear: In entering such explicitly political territory, he is risking the perceived impartiality that provides the core strength of the organization with which he shares the Nobel Prize. The world has 191 nations capable of playing nuclear politics, but it has only one apolitical IAEA.

The writer is a researcher in the Department of War Studies at King's College London and a nonresident science fellow at the Brookings Institution.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company