Secretary Clinton hit all the right notes about the International Atomic Energy Agency during her big non-proliferation speech yesterday.

Enhancing the IAEA’s capabilities to verify whether states are engaging in illicit nuclear activity is essential to strengthening the nonproliferation regime. The IAEA’s additional protocol, which allows for more aggressive, short-notice inspections should be made universal, through concerted efforts to persuade key holdout states to join.

Our experience with Iraq’s nuclear program before the 1991 Gulf War showed that the IAEA’s rights and resources needed upgrading. The additional protocol is the embodiment of those lessons. A failure to make this protocol the global standard means the world will have failed to heed the lessons of history at our collective peril. The IAEA should make full use of existing verification authorities, including special inspections. But it should also be given new authorities, including the ability to investigate suspected nuclear weapons-related activities even when no nuclear materials are present. And if we expect the IAEA to be a bulwark of the nonproliferation regime, we must give it the resources necessary to do the job.

Improving the IAEA’s ability to detect safeguard violations is not enough. Potential violators must know that if they are caught, they will pay a high price. That is certainly not the case today. Despite American efforts, the international community’s record of enforcing compliance in recent years is unacceptable. Compliance mechanisms and procedures must be improved. We should consider adopting automatic penalties for violation of safeguards agreements; for example, suspending all international nuclear cooperation, or IAEA technical cooperation projects until compliance has been restored. [emphasis mine]

On the legal front, there are still 25 non-nuclear countries that have yet to sign safeguard agreements that grant the IAEA full access to information that could lead to the IAEA deducing whether a state was developing a clandestine nuclear weapons program. A further 73 states have not signed the so-called additional protocols, which give broad, in-country access to IAEA inspectors. Without the kind of access granted though safeguard agreements and the additional protocol, the IAEA’s ability to detect weapons programs is severely strained. Unfortunately, as Clinton noted, the international community has done little to raise the costs for countries that refuse to enter agreements that let the IAEA do its job.

The IAEA also faces significant hurdles in its ability to act as an authority capable of conducting independent technical analysis. The IAEA, for example, lacks state-of-the art environmental sampling technology and must outsource this work to a small handful of labs in member states. This is problematic because the agency’s value rests in international perception that it is not a tool of any particular state, but an independent actor solely in pursuit of the truth. As Mohammed elBaradei notes, this perception is damaged when the IAEA must turn to its member states to provide technical analysis.

Finally, the IAEA’s struggle to obtain the most up-to-date technical resources is symptomatic of one recurring feature of the IAEA: constant underfunding. The IAEA’s total annual budget is about $400 million. This may seem like a significant outlay, but in American budgetary terms it amounts to far less than 1% of the budget of the Department of Defense. In 2008, an IAEA report found that the safeguards budget of the IAEA, which is meant to protect hundreds of tons of nuclear material in hundreds of facilities in scores of countries, is not more than the budget of the police department of the IAEA’s host city, Vienna, Austria.

 The bottom line is, if we are serious about combating proliferation, we need a strong IAEA.  This speech was an affirmation that the United States government recognizes the neccesity of an empowered IAEA.