The 40-plus heads of state gathered for the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. are spending the morning discussing ways to strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency.  This is a topic that is long overdue. Over the past ten years, the IAEA has transformed from a backwater international agency to the first line of defense for non-proliferation.  Along the way, however, its own members have failed to fully empower the IAEA to fulfill its new mission as the world’s “nuclear watch dog.” As a result, the IAEA is struggling.

How did we get here? In his famous 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech, President Dwight D. Eisenhower called for the creation of an “atomic energy agency could be made responsible for the impounding, storage and protection of the contributed fissionable and other materials.” In 1957, the IAEA was established to do just that. And, for much of the Cold War, it remained a small international agency responsible for simply double-checking its member states’ own declarations on nuclear activity.  This changed with the end of the Cold War and the emergence of Iraq as a nuclear weapon state. Iraq’s proliferation was a wakeup call for the international community, which in turn sought to expand the legal and technical authority entrusted to the IAEA to forestall something like that from happening again.

Over the past decade, the triple proliferation crises of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran fundamentally changed what the international community required from the institution. The IAEA has effectively turned into a nuclear detective agency. But despite demands placed upon the organization, the agency still lacks the resources to excel at this role. A “CSI-Vienna” it is not.

Consider it’s budget. The IAEA is funded through a regular budget assessment from its member states–that is, its members pay dues and are thus given the privelege of sitting on its board of governors. For most of the last decade, these board members imposed a policy of “zero-growth,” meaning that even as the IAEA was asked to do more, its regular buget remained stagnant.  

In 2010 the IAEA’s regular budget amounted to about $420 million. For comparison, the budget of the U.S. Department of Defense is about $500 BILLION.  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.

An IAEA budget crunch threatens to undermine the agency’s political and technical usefullness for its member states. Remember: the value that an international organization like the IAEA adds to international relations is that it is considered independent from of any single member state. When it comes to technical analysis — like deducing if a particular nuclear site in Iran is capable of producing high-enriched uranium — part of the agency’s value rests in the perception that it comes to its own, indepent conclusions.  The problem is, a spartan budget means that the agency lacks certain in-house expertise. For example, it has to outsource environmental sampling lab work to a small handful of labs in its member states. 

For much of the past decade, the previous IAEA director’s calls for increased funding have mostly fallen on deaf ears. (You may recall that there was no love lost between the Bush administration and Mohammed elBaradei.) President Obama, however, seems to understand the value of the IAEA. He has called on countries to double the IAEA’s budget over the next four years. In 2010, the United States increased its own contributions by 20%. Strengthing the IAEA was also featured in the Nuclear Posture Review — and the fact that the host country put it on the agenda of today’s summit bodes well for the prospect of an empowered IAEA.   

In the end, strengthening the IAEA is a matter of self-interest for its member states.  The international community has invested significant political and diplomatic capital into conclusions drawn by IAEA inspectors. Critical foreign policy decisions like whether or not to pursue sanctions are based on the IAEA’s scientific conclusions. It’s about time that the IAEA receives political and financial backing commensurate with its new and emerging responsibilities. It seems that we are finally on the way to getting the IAEA we deserve.

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