By Julian Borger
22 March 2012
Former officials warn
of parallels between IAEA approach to Iran and mistakes over Iraq's supposed
weapons of mass destruction
The head of the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the nuclear watchdog at the heart of
the growing Iranian crisis, has been accused by several former senior officials
of pro-western bias, over-reliance on unverified intelligence and of sidelining
Yukiya Amano, a
veteran Japanese diplomat, took command of the IAEA in July 2009. Since then,
the west's confrontation with Iran over its nuclear programme has deepened and
threats of military action by Israel and the US have become more frequent.
At the same time, the
IAEA's reports on Iranian behaviour have become steadily more critical. In
November, it published an unprecedented volume of intelligence pointing towards
past Iranian work on developing a nuclear weapon, deeming it credible.
However, some former
IAEA officials are saying that the agency has gone too far. Robert Kelley, former
US weapons scientists who ran the IAEA action team on Iraq at the time of the
US-led invasion, said there were worrying parallels between the west's mistakes
over Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction then and the IAEA's assessment
of Iran now.
"Amano is falling
into the Cheney trap. What we learned back in 2002 and 2003, when we were in
the run-up to the war, was that peer review was very important, and that the
analysis should not be left to a small group of people," Kelley said.
"So what have we
learned since then? Absolutely nothing. Just like [former US vice-president]
Dick Cheney, Amano is relying on a very small group of people and those
opinions are not being checked."
Other former officials
have also raised concern that the current IAEA is becoming an echo chamber,
focused on suspicions over Iran's programme, without the vigorous debate that
characterised the era of Amano's predecessor Mohamed ElBaradei.
They point to Amano's
decision, in March last year, to dissolve the agency's office of external
relations and policy co-ordination (Expo), which under ElBaradei had
second-guessed some of the judgments made by the safeguards department
Expo cautioned against
the publication of IAEA reports that the Bush administration might use to
justify military action. Some inspectors believed that amounted to censorship
and western governments said it was not the agency's job to make political
from Expo were moved sideways in the organisation, and the department's
functions have been absorbed by the director-general's office. "There has
been a concentration of power, with less diversity of viewpoints," a
former agency official said, adding that Amano has surrounded himself with
advisors who have the same approach to Iran.
Hans Blix, a former
IAEA director general, also raised concerns over the agency's credibility.
"There is a distinction between information and evidence, and if you are a
responsible agency you have to make sure that you ask questions and do not base
conclusions on information that has not been verified," he said.
"The agency has a
certain credibility. It should guard it by being meticulous in checking the
evidence. If certain governments want a blessing for the intelligence they
provide the IAEA, they should provide convincing evidence. Otherwise, the
agency should not give its stamp of approval." Blix said he could not say
for certain whether that had happened under Amano's watch.
The IAEA would not
comment on the criticisms, under a policy which avoids entering public debate.
Western diplomats in
Vienna, where the IAEA has its headquarters, defended Amano's management,
pointing out that much of the material on weaponisation had been previously
raised when ElBaradei ran the agency, albeit in less detail, and was based on
1,000 pages of documentation.
"It is arguable
that ElBaradei was a slightly more benefit-of-the-doubt operator than
Amano," one diplomat said. "He might have fretted more about making
judgments on evidence because he didn't have 100% confirmation. Amano says, 'I
don't have 100% certainty, but it makes no sense saying nothing until a smoking
gun is visible.' "
Some of the
controversy around Amano's management dates to his election in 2009, when he
narrowly beat Abdul Minty, a South African diplomat who championed the
interests of developing countries organised in the Non-Aligned Movement, in a
campaign which became a geopolitical contest between North and South.
director-generalship began under a bad star," said Mark Hibbs, a nuclear
expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The election
was extremely polarised and bitter. Minty clearly appealed to states who see
themselves as underdogs and have-nots. Amano was supported by the US and others
who saw him as rolling back the IAEA's political aspirations under ElBaradei to
a more technical agency."
The acrid taste left
by the election was heightened by the US diplomatic cables published by
WikiLeaks which revealed Amano's assiduous courting of American support. In an
October 2009 cable, the US charge d'affaires, Geoffrey Pyatt, wrote:
"Amano reminded [the] ambassador on several occasions that he would need
to make concessions to the G-77 [the developing countries group], which
correctly required him to be fair-minded and independent, but that he was
solidly in the US court on every key strategic decision, from high-level
personnel appointments to the handling of Iran's alleged nuclear weapons
In an earlier cable in
July that year, the Americans recount discussions with Amano on the future of
officials, particular in Expo, "Some of whom have not always been helpful
to US positions". Last year, the named officials were moved to other jobs,
out of the inner core which drafts the quarterly reports, like the
controversial one on Iran in November.
Hibbs argues that some
degree of reorganisation was desirable and inevitable given the heated public
battles under ElBaradei. "Many states' diplomats were appalled that a
small number of officials in the two [IAEA] departments were at war with each
other and at the extent they were prepared to use the media to get their points
across," he said.
Under Amano, internal
debates have generally not leaked, and he has centralised the organisation,
insisting that most public statements come from his office. But this has not
stop controversy from enveloping the agency, just as it did under ElBaradei. In
the first major crisis of the Amano tenure, the Fukushima nuclear disaster
following the Japanese tsunami a year ago, he was widely blamed for not acting
quickly and aggressively enough.
Criticism over the
agency's outspoken comments on Iran has also focused on the director-general.
Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a Washington-based
non-proliferation organisation, said: "The main beneficiaries of the Amano
reign have been US policy and the Japanese nuclear power industry. There has
been no space between Amano and Barack Obama, and he withheld serious criticism
of the industry during the Fukushima crisis."
He added: "On
Iran, the difference is like night and day. ElBaradei constantly sought a
diplomatic solution, while Amano wields a big stick and has hit Iran hard and
On the other hand,
Cirincione added, ElBaradei's more restrained approach had not succeeded in
persuading Iran to suspend its enrichment of uranium in line with UN Security
The facts of that
accelerating enrichment programme are generally not disputed, only the
intentions behind it. Cirincione also said new information has come to the
IAEA's attention during Amano's stewardship, which may warrant the more
detailed report on the possible military dimensions of the programme issued in
Even Kelley, a fierce
critic of the agency, said in a recent commentary that "[Iran] claims to
have given up its nuclear weapons ambitions, yet repeatedly acts as if it has
something to hide. I am a sceptic; I suspect the Iranians may have an ongoing
weaponisation programme. And the uncertainty must be resolved."
Kelley argues that
with war and peace in the balance, as well as the IAEA's credibility, anything
it publishes must be thoroughly verified. In particular, he questions the
agency's focus on a bus-sized steel vessel supposedly installed in an Iranian
military site at Parchin in 2000, which the November report said was for
"hydrodynamic experiments" – testing shaped, high-explosive arrays
used to implode the spherical fissile core of a warhead and start a chain
reaction. Kelley disputes the agency's logic.
"You don't do
hydrodynamic testing of nuclear bombs in containers," he said. "All
of such tests would be done at outdoor firing sites, not in a building next to
a major highway."
Kelley also says the
suggestion in the November report that weapons experimentation could be
continuing is based largely on a single document, which ElBaradei had rejected
as dubious. In his memoir, The Age of Deception, ElBaradei talks about
documents supplied in 2009 by Israel, the authenticity of which was questioned
by the agency's experts.
officials argue that with the use of advanced fibre optics, a containment
vessel could be used to perfect the timing of explosive arrays, and say that
evidence that has surfaced during Amano's tenure had added to the credibility
of the Israeli document. However, the judgment of the US intelligence community
is that weapons development ceased in 2003.
Jim Walsh, an expert
on the Iranian nuclear programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
said that US intelligence had become more certain over recent years in its
judgment that Iran ceased weaponisation work in 2003.
"Amano has been
way out in front of the US on this," Walsh said. "I think if the
agency is going to be a neutral player in this – and we need a neutral player
to make the sort of judgements that have to be made – it will have to be more
conservative that the national governments on this."
The issue is critical.
While there is no doubt that Iran is in contravention of US security council
resolutions, and there is substantial evidence that the country had an
organised weapons project up to 2003, the claim that work has continued has
added to the sense of urgency that has fuelled the western oil embargo, due to
take effect in less than four months, and threats of military action.
ElBaradei's former speechwriter and a collaborator on The Age of Deception,
said that huge stakes could rest on the nuances with which the IAEA
director-general interprets the evidence.
"It is a very
difficult place to be sitting," Coblentz said. "Amano and ElBaradei
were looking at the same allegations. They have both said to their people:
please pursue this. All that is the same. The other thing that is the same is
that so far the most substantial allegations have not been verified. What has
changed is the willingness to publish those allegations that have not been
verified as a tool to pressure the Iranians to come to the table."
July 1968 Iran joins
nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT)
August 2002 The rebel
group the National Council for Resistance in Iran reveals the existence of
undeclared nuclear sites, including an enrichment plant in Natanz and a
heavy-water production plant in Arak. Iran acknowledges existence of sites and
asks the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect them
June 2003 The IAEA
rebukes Iran for not declaring plant but does not find it in violation of the
October 2003 Iran
agrees to suspend uranium enrichment and to allow a regime of unannounced IAEA
September 2005 The
IAEA finds Iran in non-compliance with the NPT, because of failure to report
its nuclear activities
December 2005 Security
council imposes the first set of sanctions on Iran for its refusal to accept a
resolution calling for a suspension of enrichment
January 2006 Iran
breaks IAEA seals on Natanz plant and other nuclear sites
February 2006 The IAEA
reports Iran to the UN security council for non-compliance
December 2006 UN
imposes first round of sanctions, resolution 1737, which called on states to
block Iran's import and export of "sensitive nuclear material"
December 2007 A US
national intelligence estimate concludes that Iran had stopped its weapons
development programme in 2003
September 2009 Barack
Obama, Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy announce that their intelligence
agencies have found a new Iranian enrichment plant dug into the side of a
mountain near Qom, at a site called Fordow. Iran had revealed its existence to
the IAEA days earlier, but western officials say that was because it knew it
had been discovered
October 2009 An
apparent breakthrough at a meeting in Geneva, in which Iran agreed to export
1,200kg of its low-enrichment uranium, 75% of the total, in return for
foreign-made, 20%-enriched fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). The
deal breaks down three weeks later in Vienna
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announces that Iran has made its own 20%-enriched
May 2010 Brazil and
Turkey broker a deal on the TRR fuel swap along same lines as the Geneva
proposal. However, US and its allies reject the deal as too late, in view of
Iran's nuclear progress since Geneva
January 2011 An
attempt to restart international negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme
breaks down in Istanbul
November 2011 The IAEA
issues a report citing extensive evidence of past work on nuclear weapons,
confirming that Iran had tripled its production of 20% uranium and made the
underground Fordow site fully operational
IAEA inspectors visit Tehran to investigate evidence pointing to a past weapons
programme, but say they did not receive sufficient co-operation
Julian Borger and Katy Roberts
• This timeline was
corrected on 23 March 2012 because the date given for Iran joining the NPT was
April 1998 instead of July 1968.
Source: The Guardian, London