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Contradictions in Atomic Agency’s Mandate

by Gabrielle Hecht on Oct 3, 2007

In his speech to the United Nations earlier this week, Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed that Iranian nuclear development had left the realm of politics for the technical domain of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The previous week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, responding to criticism of the United States by IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei, retorted that the agency should stay out of politics and stick to technical functions. Ahmadinejad and Rice essentially make the same claim: that politics and nuclear technology can be separated.

That’s pure fantasy, but the claim is as old as the effort to control the spread of nuclear weapons. The purpose of the IAEA is, has always been and should remain, to negotiate the close links between global politics and nuclear development.In his speech to the United Nations earlier this week, Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed that Iranian nuclear development had left the realm of politics for the technical domain of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The previous week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, responding to criticism of the United States by IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei, retorted that the agency should stay out of politics and stick to technical functions. Ahmadinejad and Rice essentially make the same claim: that politics and nuclear technology can be separated.

Today, most people know the IAEA as the UN’s “nuclear watchdog.” But at the time of its creation, in 1957, it sought to promote nuclear energy. World leaders hoped “peaceful uses” of the atom would counterbalance Cold War tensions. Only in its second decade did the IAEA’s policing power grow important.

In the 1950s, the IAEA sponsored nuclear research in Latin America, India, Pakistan and the Middle East — especially in Egypt and Iran. These “technical cooperation” programs aimed to transfer civilian power reactors to developing nations. Then as now, they were fraught with political tensions about which nations transferred technology, to whom and at what cost.

Early on, for example, the United States proposed that the IAEA serve as a fuel bank. The US would supply the agency with low-enriched uranium, which the IAEA would then distribute to developing nations for use in prototype reactors.

Other nations with burgeoning atomic industries saw the US proposal as an attempt to monopolize the market for nuclear reactors. Low-enriched uranium worked only in American-made light-water reactors. Back then, Canadian, French, Soviet and British reactors all used another form of uranium. Meanwhile, developing nations worried that such an arrangement would perpetuate colonial-era inequalities. Recently, Mr. ElBaradei has revived the idea of an international fuel bank, as a way for countries to get reactor fuel without building enrichment facilities that could be turned to weapons-making. Echoing decades-old reasoning, Iran claims that this system would reinforce global inequalities.

In the mid-1960s, the IAEA began thinking seriously about how to prevent diversion of civilian technologies toward military purposes. Most buyers resisted the prospect of inspections, which they felt undermined national sovereignty.

In 1968, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) formally addressed the matter of access. All signatories pledged “good faith” efforts to end the arms race and proceed toward “general and complete disarmament.” Nuclear weapons states pledged not to transfer atomic weapons to non-weapons states. The latter agreed to accept IAEA safeguards and inspections. In return, the NPT asserted “the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”

Ahmadinejad frequently invokes this “inalienable right” to justify Iran’s pursuit of uranium enrichment. The United States and others scoff at this claim, since Iran also refuses inspections, the other half of the NPT bargain.

What did the “inalienable right” really mean, historically? The NPT balanced two world views: a post-colonial perspective that insisted on all nations’ fundamental rights to sovereignty and development, and a Cold War perspective that focused on regulating access to nuclear weapons. For superpowers and developing nations, the treaty thus embodied very different aspirations, fundamentally at odds with each other. For over thirty years, then, the IAEA and the NPT have meant radically different things to different countries.

Iran — along with India, Pakistan, and others — often denounces the hypocrisy of nuclear weapons states. The lack of progress toward “general and complete disarmament,” they argue, betrays those states’lack of good faith. Meanwhile, the nuclear “haves” cynically promote the NPT’s high moral purpose simply to maintain their dominance of the market for nuclear technologies.

This reasoning doesn’t justify widespread acquisition of nuclear weapons, of course. Yet neither is it false. The US and others do need to comply more fully with the NPT.

But the problem runs deeper. If we really want to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, we need to take seriously the two-faced nature of our current non-proliferation regime and engage (again) in real dialogue with the aspirations of non-nuclear weapons states.

The IAEA has never been, and can never be, a narrowly technical agency. The real question should be: how can we help the agency be more effective in negotiating the politics inherent in nuclear technology?


Gabrielle Hecht is an associate professor, Department of History, University of Michigan, and writes for the History News Service.