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Insights into Editorial: IAEA | The ‘imperfect’ fight against proliferation


Context: Revive the Iran nuclear deal:

The move by the Joe Biden administration of the U.S. to revive the Iran nuclear deal has once again turned the spotlight on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which played a key role in enforcing the original nuclear deal from which Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. in 2018.

Recently, the IAEA and Iranian diplomats struck a “temporary” deal to continue inspection of Iran’s nuclear plants for three more months, which keeps at least the diplomatic path to revive the deal open.


IAEA role in Iran Nuclear Deal:

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran nuclear deal, proved that the IAEA can emerge beyond its mandate of being a monitoring and inspection agency and, in fact, play a key role in finding solutions to tense international crises.

As the preeminent nuclear watchdog under the UN, the IAEA is entrusted with the task of upholding the principles of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970.

Established as an autonomous organisation on July 29, 1957, at the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the IAEA claims that it “works with its member states and multiple partners worldwide to promote the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies”.

Though established independently of the UN through its own international treaty, the agency reports to both the UN General Assembly and the Security Council.


Civil nuclear solutions in other field areas:

Apart from dealing with the sovereign states and their pursuit of civil and military nuclear programmes, the IAEA is also active in championing civil nuclear solution to a number of areas like health, which is one of the main areas of peaceful application of nuclear know how.

That apart, in recent years, the IAEA is also active in dealing with climate change, pandemic containment and in prevention of Zoonotic diseases.


Iran Nuclear Deal:

  1. In 2015, Iran with the P5+1 group of world powers – the USA, UK, France, China, Russia, and Germany agreed on a long-term deal on its nuclear programme.
  2. The deal was named as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and in common parlance as Iran Nuclear Deal.
  3. Under the deal, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear activity in return for the lifting of sanctions and access to global trade.
  4. The agreement allowed Iran to accumulate small amounts of uranium for research but it banned the enrichment of uranium, which is used to make reactor fuel and nuclear weapons.
  5. Iran was also required to redesign a heavy-water reactor being built, whose spent fuel could contain plutonium suitable for a bomb and to allow international inspections.


About International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA):

  1. IAEA’s origins can be traced back to an address of the former US President Dwight Eisenhower to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1953.
  2. The address was known as ‘Atoms for Peace’ and this was the organisation’s first name when it was formally established in 1957. Headquartered in Vienna, Austria, the IAEA is a UN agency.
  3. The primary mandate of the organisation was and continues to be promoting safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technologies. India became a member in 1957 itself.
  4. By ensuring the peaceful usage of nuclear technologies, the IAEA contributes to peace and security in the world and also towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  5. The IAEA, along with its former Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
  6. Currently, it has 171 members. The latest member is Saint Lucia which joined the IAEA in 2019.


Criticism related to the working of IAEA:

  1. There have always been questions about the Agency’s ability to work independently, without being drawn into big power rivalries.
  2. What the IAEA missed in terms of real authority over sovereign states, it compensated for that by cultivating some tall leadership whose actions kept the issue of non-proliferation on the multilateral table.
  3. Both Mohamed El Baradei (1997-2009) and Yukiya Amano (2009-19) were vocal at difficult moments.
  4. Under pressure from the George W. Bush administration to back the American claim that the Saddam Hussein regime of Iraq was pursuing nuclear weapons.
  5. Former Director General Mr. El Baradei maintained that he would not rush into a judgment on this matter without incontrovertible evidence that could prove that Hussein had committed a gross violation of non-proliferation.
  6. History proved that his cautious approach was right as the invasion of Iraq failed to yield the necessary proof of Hussein’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
  7. While the agency played a key role in providing the platform for holding frank discussion about civil nuclear requirement for several countries, it proved to be ineffective to prevent power politics from influencing nuclear negotiations.
  8. This was particularly visible when Pakistan pursued a nuclear weapons programme in the 1980s and despite overwhelming evidence in possession of the American authorities, they did not pursue the case effectively through the IAEA because of the cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan on the Afghan front.
  9. Defenders of the Agency would say the lack of executive authority has not been a real issue as the IAEA was originally set up as a monitoring organ.
  10. Richard Barlow, who was in charge of the CIA’s non-proliferation programme that tracked Pakistan’s nuclear programme, says that having the IAEA is an “imperfect system but it’s better than nothing”.
  11. The IAEA was the first to announce that the North Korean nuclear programme was not peaceful.
  12. North Korea finally expelled IAEA observers and as a result, there are no on-the-ground international inspectors in North Korea.
  13. The world is reliant on ground sensors and satellite imageries to observe North Korea’s nuclear actions.


Iran became a challenge for IAEA:

The coming weeks will, however, test the 63-year old organisation as Iran remains suspicious of the exact intentions of the U.S. under the Biden administration.

The current episode, which involves regional political concerns like Saudi-Iran and Iran-Israel rivalries as well as the American interests in the region, will certainly test the leadership of Rafael Mariano Grossi, the current Director General of the IAEA.

It will also test the ability of the IAEA to deal with powerful states from its position of “uneven authority”.



There were controversies in the case of inspection of Iranian nuclear installations when Iran’s then Intelligence Minister had accused the IAEA of sending intelligence operatives who engaged in espionage against the interest of the Islamic Republic.

The 2010 allegation also hinted that IAEA inspectors and observers had shared information with the U.S. government.

The issues involved between Iran and the U.S. indicate that they are not part of the mandate of the IAEA.

Iran also requires assurance that once activated, the deal will not be abandoned in future by an American President in the way that President Trump had done in 2018. Tying all the loose ends of this difficult negotiation will be the biggest challenge for all parties.