Opinion: Safeguards & Public Diplomacy


“We will have access to Fordow, a secret facility in a mountaintop that we’ve never been in.” – John Kerry to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Dec. 10, 2013

“They have to allow inspection of the Fordow underground facility and of the Natanz nuclear plant. They didn’t have to do that before.” – John Kerry interview Jake Tapper of CNN, Feb. 5, 2014
IAEA headquarters in Vienna
IAEA headquarters in Vienna

Treaties are verified because people and nations are not necessarily trustworthy, especially when they act in the interests of power and wealth. The verification tool keeping watch over the world’s deadliest potential arsenal is called Safeguards. Just as the seeds of the European Union are found in counting steel that could be used for cannons, IAEA Safeguards keep track of nuclear-bomb material at proliferation risk. The base value of every gram of transmogrified uranium on Earth may be seen as the cost to deploy the people and machines needed to count it.

Safeguards information is supposed to be kept between the IAEA and the nation from which it’s extracted. There are exceptions, such as the case with Iran, when the agency’s board ordered safeguards reports to be published. In the realm of sovereign humiliations, having Safeguards dirty laundry hung in public is close to the ultimate affront. Amid the gawking and the press (“Iranian Stains Won’t Come Out!”) Safeguards decorum still exists under contract. Information retrieved is classified. Even if IAEA financiers want more:

“The Agency shall not publish or communicate to any State, organization or person any information obtained by it in connection with the implementation of this Agreement, except that specific information relating to the implementation thereof  may be given to the Board of Governors of the Agency (hereinafter referred to as “the Board”) and to such Agency staff members as require such knowledge by reason of their official duties in connection with safeguards, but only to the extent necessary for the Agency to fulfill its responsibilities in implementing this Agreement”— Article 5b(i) or IAEA’s safeguards agreement with Iran

Cables have forced readers to question, in multiple instances, the kind of information that has flowed between IAEA Safeguards officials and member states. There is the appearance that, at least in the past, inspectors provided information to members when they shouldn’t have. Other cables show how diplomats tried to spin and turn technical facts to political advantage. One of Director General Yukiya Amano’s first acts in office was to try to stiffen information security.

“It is vitally important for the Agency that all staff members fulfill their obligations to protect confidential information. We are reviewing our public information policy and staff rules regarding interaction between staff and external contacts, including the media.” September 2010, Board Statement

New barriers between IAEA staff and the public, along with fresh constraints on relations with journalists were imposed. Four days before the Fukushima tragedy, it was information security, not safety, still preoccupying IAEA upper management:

“We have continued to raise staff awareness of the vital importance of respecting confidentiality. Nearly 2,000 agency staff and contractors have passed the mandatory information security test.” Yukiya Amano Board Statement, March 7, 2011

Historically, the Agency exerted independence by defending Safeguards’ from false assertions. Inaccurate reports formerly were cleared up by the Agency’s external affairs office. That was disbanded by Mr. Amano in April 2011. Reduced public diplomacy channels and more restrictive press measures exposed the agency to the risk of fact-free data interpretation.

Take the quotation from Secretary of State Kerry at the start of this post. The IAEA has had access to Fordow since October 2009. While his diplomacy in the Geneva accord was admirable, repeating inaccurate information was not. Saying the deal won access to Fordow for the first time gives the appearance of compromise where none existed. While voices rightly argue that the integrity of Safeguards needs to be upheld in Iran, they might focus more attention on how the IAEA sets the record straight at present before focusing too deeply on the past.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks in Geneva following negotiations with Iran
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks in Geneva following negotiations with Iran

Last week’s Reuters story about a suppressed report alleging new evidence against Iran similarly shows how weak public diplomacy undermines the Agency. It took the IAEA 24-hours to deny that the watchdog even considered barking. That was long-enough for the (apparently false) news to be amplified by capitals

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. It surely put IAEA officials in an awkward position. Confirmation would have shown that despite the new information-security restrictions, people were still recklessly divulging confidential safeguards information
. Denial may have cast doubt on the quality of information that it was provided.

Another “secret-report gambit” in 2009 hurt the Agency’s credibility. That supposedly-suppressed annex was used to dramatic effect in  accounts about an inept agency yielding to sinister Iranian intentions. It cast ElBaradei as an appeaser. After sitting for two years because of questions about the information’s provenance, the annex was finally published in November 2011 by Mr
.  Amano. That 
report, citing intelligence the Agency called “credible,” is a cornerstone in today’s case against Iran.

Unlike the period preceding the Iraq War, when inspectors debunked bad data used to argue for invasion, the IAEA hasn’t acknowledged questioning information provided about Iran. That seems odd. After all, wouldn’t one expect Iran’s adversaries to do everything in their power to exaggerate the perceived threat? Wouldn’t members be failing their duty by not trying to plant intelligence? Wouldn’t it be up to the Agency to catch them at this gentlemen’s game?

To be sure, Safeguards leaks will undoubtedly continue. They are tools for diplomats and sure scoops for journalists. What’s missing is independent assessment to separate the signals from the noise. While the agency has narrowed public channels to information, it hasn’t necessarily plugged the confidentiality breeches that caused the crackdown. If the Agency really wants to answer questions about the possible military dimensions allegedly concealed in Iran’s nuclear past, it may start by recognizing public diplomacy’s value and make sure people are getting facts straight and on time.

Post submitted by Strontium-90, a professional writer and long-time IAEA observer. With a background in network analysis, Sr90 maintains a soft spot for journalism