Opinion

Should Iran and the Rest of the Mideast's Nuclear Cheats Fear the UN's New Nuke Cop?

The Trump administration called him the 'perfect candidate.' How will Rafael Grossi, incoming IAEA chief, manage U.S. and Israeli pressure on Iran – and brewing nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East?

The mushroom cloud of an atom bomb rises among abandoned ships in Bikini lagoon, Marshall Islands. July 1, 1946
AP

The world has a new top nuclear cop.

On October 29th, Argentinian diplomat Rafael Grossi was elected chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Grossi replaced Japan’s Yukia Amano, who died last July while in office, after almost 10 years in the job.

It is a tough time to head the global agency charged with stopping the proliferation of the world’s deadliest weapons. From North Korea to India and Pakistan - the sisyphean task of stopping nuclear weapons proliferation remains a tough job. Just last week, Iran announced it will breach additional terms of the nuclear deal negotiated by Obama and abrogated by Trump.

A main tenet of the nuclear deal was enhanced placement of IAEA inspectors in key locations in Iran’s nuclear sites. For nearly four years the IAEA’s experts toured Iran’s nuclear sites and reported back everything they saw.

Incoming director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Argentina's Mariano Grossi, speaks to the press in Vienna, Austria. October 02, 2019
AFP

How will Grossi react if Iran decides to serially limit his inspectors' freedom of access? What will he do if they are delayed from entering Iran or even expelled? What would he do if Saudi Arabia or Turkey make good on their promises to counter Iran with nuclear progress of their own - all under the guise of an energy program? 

The early signs are that he will take office with an assertive non-proliferation agenda. He positioned himself as the reform candidate in the campaign for the post. Unlike his rivals, Grossi addressed the Iranian nuclear program directly, calling for a "firm but fair" approach. 

These signs suggest that Iran is unlikely to find an ally in Grossi, which is why the Trump administration supported his bid. The U.S. energy secretary called him the "perfect candidate." 

Even if he becomes the "perfect" chief nuclear inspector, the job has more limitations than would appear. A former IAEA official, Laura Rockwood, has explained the mismatch between the agency’s global mission and its resources. The Vienna-based organization covers 181 countries with resources that amount to "barely three percent of the annual budget of the New York City police department." 

The right to inspect whether nuclear technology is only being used for peaceful purposes - and the tools used to do so - is negotiated with each country individually. IAEA inspectors can’t force their way in, even if a country were to secretly import nuclear materials and technology, like when Syria bought a nuclear reactor from North Korea, and Pakistan peddled centrifuges in Iran, Libya, and elsewhere.   

Making the job of IAEA director general even harder, by its founding mandate, the agency is not only a non-proliferation inspectorate. It is also obligated to help countries develop peaceful applications of nuclear technology in the fields of energy, medicine, and agriculture. As a result, half its budget is dedicated to spreading nuclear technology. 

With organizational goals so contradictory, every director general chooses an area of emphasis. And because governments have deep interests IAEA policy, the director will have to choose between trying to please everybody or taking clear stands.

Previous directors took their own paths. After big shortcomings were exposed in the 1990s about the monitoring of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, former IAEA director Hans Blix reacted by acquiring improved inspector gadgets and better access rights, even if it made the relationship between between inspectors and inspected less friendly.

Iran's Hassan Rohani speaks during Iran's National Nuclear Day in Tehran, Iran, April 9, 2019.
\ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

Egypt’s Mohammed El Baradei took a different stance as director, resisting the Bush Administration’s confrontations with Iraq and Iran over their nuclear programs. For that, he earned the enmity of the U.S. and the agency a Nobel Peace Prize for his independent interpretation of the job. Another contrasting example is Yukiya Amano, who was seen as too attentive to the American agenda of how to run the IAEA.

Another delicate question Grossi will deal with is how to handle secrets provided by spy services. Governments often have interests in exposing illicit acts of their adversaries. Most immediately, as Israel pushes for additional investigations of the Iranian nuclear program’s past based on the documents it uncovered in a Tehran warehouse, Grossi will have to decide how much to trust the information - and how to keep it safe.    

The broad international support he received during the election and his experience in nuclear matters offer hope that he will have the skill and backing to implement the agency’s mission of detecting nuclear cheating. 

But even the world’s top nuclear inspector is only an international civil servant with a contradictory mandate. He doesn’t have a search warrant to kick in the door on suspicious nuclear programs - from Pakistan to Israel - that haven’t consented to being inspected.    

Alex Bollfrass is a researcher with the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich. Twitter: @alexbollfrass