New Nuclear Hotspots Could Bolster Nonproliferation Reform

WASHINGTON — As the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United States scramble to take stock of long-concealed WMD programs in Iran and Libya, experts and diplomats here and in Vienna are saying the cases illustrate the need for changes in the international nonproliferation regime (see GSN, Dec. 31, 2003).

U.S. President George W. Bush announced last month that Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qadhafi had promised the United States and the United Kingdom that Libya would “disclose and dismantle” its WMD programs and would allow immediate and unfettered inspections.

Since Bush’s announcement, U.S., British and IAEA delegations have visited the country amid controversy over whether the United States or the U.N. nuclear watchdog should bear ultimate responsibility for dismantling Libya’s nuclear program. Although some have called the U.S.-driven Libya episode evidence of the agency’s inefficacy, Center for Strategic and International Studies Senior Fellow Anthony Cordesman said the IAEA is doing what it is supposed to do.

“When you set up international organizations in ways which make them dependent on member countries and their intelligence data, then you have to accept what the limitations are. You can’t go around blaming the organization for being what it’s chartered to be,” said Cordesman, a former director of intelligence assessment in the U.S. defense secretary’s office.

Meanwhile, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei has been seeking to revamp the global nuclear nonproliferation regime and the agency at its center. The Libya case, as well as the international response to Iran’s disclosure last year of long-secret nuclear programs, could weigh heavily in determining the success or failure of ElBaradei’s efforts.

“On the surface, it’s a good development,” IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said by telephone from Vienna, “and if Libya and Iran go well, and there aren’t any surprises down the road, it will help shore up the nonproliferation regime a little bit, and hopefully, the Libya model will be an example that others will follow as well.” Gwozdecky added, however, that the cases demonstrate “what ElBaradei has been saying for a long time [about] the limitations or the flaws of the system” ― the current nonproliferation regime, after all, did not prevent either country from engaging for years in secret nuclear work.

“What Libya shows from an agency perspective,” agreed one Western diplomat in Vienna, “is something that the United States and ElBaradei have been saying all along. … We need to evolve beyond the simple NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty].”

In a much-discussed Oct. 18 article in The Economist, ElBaradei recommended steps such as promoting “proliferation-resistant nuclear energy systems” and bringing all reprocessing and enrichment of nuclear materials, as well as spent fuel management and disposal, under multinational control.

“While I in no way wish to undercut the importance of states’ adherence to their NPT obligations,” ElBaradei wrote, “I believe it is time to being designing a framework more suited to the threats and realities of the 21st century.”

Expanding on ElBaradei’s published recommendations, a Western diplomat in Vienna said the agency needs more “authority to do credible inspections” via wider acceptance of enhanced safeguards agreements the agency has with individual nations; stronger controls on exports of nuclear material and technology; broader sharing of information among countries seeking to curb proliferation; and ― because “a country [that] is determined to find security in weapons of mass destruction … can well find a way to beat all these measures” ― “a global security framework where countries’ broader security interests are being addressed.”

The agency’s attention to such proposals has generated considerable interest in nonproliferation circles, but diplomatic and expert sources indicated countries such as the United States are far from signing on. Nuclear Control Institute founder Paul Leventhal said any IAEA-generated reform efforts reflect the agency’s having “struck out” with would-be proliferators such as Libya. “It really reflects that [ElBaradei is] getting scared,” said Leventhal, who favors sweeping changes in the nonproliferation regime, including a comprehensive ban on civilian use of weapons-usable fissile material.

Leventhal said ElBaradei’s proposals do not address the threat inherent in most civilian use of nuclear energy. ElBaradei’s proposed multinational system of enrichment and reprocessing, he said, could provide dangerous information to countries that are in good standing with the IAEA but are seeking to develop a nuclear weapon. Calls for stronger export controls are inappropriate, Leventhal added, since the current IAEA-associated supply regime is a “total bust.”

Reach of Additional Protocol Limited

As IAEA members seek to prevent the emergence of more Libyas and Irans, many countries, notably the United States, are focusing in particular on promoting an enhanced international monitoring regime in the form of an Additional Protocol to IAEA safeguards agreements. The protocol provides for more intrusive IAEA inspections in countries that sign on to it, a move Iran made in December and Libya is expected to make within months. One diplomat said Washington and ElBaradei are both engaged in an “evolution toward the Additional Protocol as the gold standard.”

“If you want the IAEA to be vibrant, and you want the IAEA to be effective in stopping nuclear proliferation, then you have to get [IAEA inspectors] out of an accountancy role” by making the Additional Protocol as universal as possible, said the diplomat.

Cordesman called the protocol a useful “deterrent” of illicit nuclear weapon development. Any country that signs the protocol and later considers nuclear weapon development, he said, will know that “its activities are going to be detected, and then it either has to allow them to be found, or it has to essentially deny IAEA inspection.”

Nothing in the protocol, however, would remove the fundamental difficulty of detecting small-scale, undeclared nuclear activity of the sort seen in Libya and Iran, sources agreed. “Even with the Additional Protocol,” said Gwozdecky of the Libyan programs, “we would be hard-pressed to detect this kind of low-level experimental activity.”

According to Leventhal, an IAEA armed with Additional Protocols for countries of concern would still need significant outside help, notably in intelligence. “The agency alone cannot really do the job in an adversarial situation where the inspected country is determined to cheat,” Leventhal said.

Given the IAEA’s limits, U.S. officials have expressed disapproval of ElBaradei’s statement last week that Libya’s nuclear weapon program was “in the very early stages of development,” and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly called ElBaradei late last week to defuse the controversy (see GSN, Dec. 29, 2003). Leventhal said the IAEA can know only what Libya is willing to tell it, adding, “I guess the first thing I’d like to see is a little bit more humility on the part of ElBaradei.”

Cordesman acknowledged the agency is dependent on cooperation from countries suspected of weapon development, but he defended the agency against charges it is overstepping its competency.

“Every inspection tends to be different, and everything depends on how cooperative the country is,” said Cordesman, but “there is also a tendency at times to set impossible goals.” Although the IAEA cannot detect small-scale weapon research, he said, “Nuclear weapons are not something that you put together in your garage, and if the IAEA is given reasonable access, it should be possible to find out whether Libya has made any significant advances in centrifuge enrichment.”

“Next Wave” of Nuclear Admissions Termed Unlikely

The rapid succession of developments in Iran and Libya has obliged the IAEA to undertake special missions to both countries, but sources agreed that the agency’s Safeguards Division has enough personnel to handle the extra work and that the Iran and Libya cases are not likely to be followed by a wave of similar disclosures by other countries.

One Western diplomat said the number of countries that could emerge as new causes of nuclear weapon concern is limited. “I don’t know that there are that many other countries that sort of fit this ― international terrorism combined with pursuit of the bomb. … I don’t see any next wave,” said the diplomat.

In any case, the diplomat added, “There’s no need to have a flood of new inspectors. … What’s important is that they have enough funds to be technologically on the cutting edge and … enough guys to do the job.”

IAEA spokesman Gwozdecky agreed. “The important thing is not the number of bodies on the ground, but the competence of the inspectors, the quality of their analysis and the breadth of their experience,” he said.

January 7, 2004

WASHINGTON — As the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United States scramble to take stock of long-concealed WMD programs in Iran and Libya, experts and diplomats here and in Vienna are saying the cases illustrate the need for changes in the international nonproliferation regime (see GSN, Dec. 31, 2003).