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A Walk Between War and Peace for the UN Nuclear Agency


Yukiya Amano, the chief of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency. He is said to be closely allied with the United States and others in the West.
Yukiya Amano, the chief of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency and a former Japanese diplomat. He is said to be closely allied with the interests of the United States and other Western countries. DEAN CALMA/IAEA

As international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and the boundaries between peaceful uses and weaponization intensify, the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, and its chief, Yukiya Amano, also grow more important. The agency has no choice but to balance all considerations carefully in the delicate tightrope.

The Obama administration must also perform a balancing act in this arena: in its relations with Israel, China, Russia, India and the Muslim world as well as its domestic needs in a presidential election year and commitment to nonproliferation. Moreover, as the latest international sanctions against Iran take effect this month, risks of further global economic distress could cause a spike in oil prices worldwide.

Besides the considerations of the UN agency and the US, long-simmering tensions exist between those who are enforcing compliance with nonproliferation treaties, and countries that are developing nuclear weapons as a form of defense (in Iran’s case, to prevent forcible regime change by armed attack).

Such concepts of national interest cannot describe the range of deliberations that the UN agency must handle in coping with the challenges of nuclear disarmament.

The agency has faced the daunting task of judging how far Iran’s nuclear program has advanced and its potential for weaponization on the basis of suggestive but dated, inconclusive and possibly forged evidence. As the latest toughened sanctions hurt Iran’s economy, the agency’s report on the country’s compliance with international demands may well mark the difference between war and a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

The agency confronts three difficult problems in reporting on Iran. If Iran is developing nuclear arms and the atomic agency fails to detect this in time, its credibility will be seriously damaged. But if its report exaggerates the threat from Iran, it will risk playing into the hands of hawks in Israel and Washington, who favor a military attack on Iran to terminate its nuclear program. The agency’s reputation would also be damaged by perceptions of Amano’s political bias.

The battle to succeed Egypt’s Mohamed ElBaradei as head of the UN agency in 2009 became intensely political along North-South lines. Voting by the agency’s 35-nation board proved inconclusive that March. The West strongly supported Amano, a career diplomat from Japan, but developing countries largely backed Abdul Minty of South Africa. Amano was elected in the second round of voting on July 2 and took office on Dec. 1, 2009.

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Amano engaged in post-election meetings with key national missions. Among the 250,000 US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks was one from the US mission in Vienna to the State Department in Washington in October 2009, quoted in The Guardian on Nov. 30, 2010. In it, Amano was said to have told the US ambassador that “he was solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.”

In light of this widely publicized alignment of Amano’s views with Washington’s, in time a harsh report would rebound on the agency itself, cross-infecting it with the slow but steady erosion of US credibility in the Middle East and discrediting it as an impartial agency serving the international community.

ElBaradei led the agency during the 2002–2003 Iraq crisis, successfully protecting its independence and reliability and awarded the Nobel peace prize (with the agency) for his international public service and courage in resisting national agendas. His predecessor, Hans Blix, a Swede, worked conscientiously over the same period as the chief UN weapons inspector to disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction. Both Blix and ElBaradei showed conviction, sagacity and integrity of the highest order. Both also irked the George W. Bush administration. Neither has received any public acknowledgment from the White House since Bush left office for their valuable contributions to building international peace and security.

It may well come to pass that at the end of his term, in 2013, Amano too will be judged as wise and courageous as Blix and ElBaradei. But for the moment, his reputation is badly handicapped by the WikiLeaks cables that revealed why Amano was Washington’s and the West’s choice for the atomic agency’s top job.

The second problem the agency faces on Iran concerns the country itself. On the one hand, if Iran is engaged in the clandestine pursuit of nuclear weapons, the continual soft-pedaling of the risk and threat could embolden it. There can be little doubt that Iran’s ability to develop arms has been greatly strengthened in the last few years despite tougher international sanctions, even though the best informed judgment is that Iran has yet to cross the threshold from a peaceful to a military nuclear program.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's envoy, at a UN nuclear agency meeting on June 4, 2012, in Vienna. DEAN CALMA/IAEA

Alternatively, if Iran is seeking nuclear weapons capacity but has not made the crucial decision to acquire usable nuclear weapons, then a harsh UN report could, counterproductively, tip it into full weaponization.

ElBaradei recounts in his memoir, “The Age of Deception,” how at a meeting at his house, Nicholas Burns, the US under secretary of state for political affairs at the time, handed him a paper outlining what Washington expected from the agency in its management of Iran. When a displeased ElBaradei politely said that the IAEA knew what to do, Burns pointedly told him “we pay 25 percent of your budget.” This calls to mind efforts by the British during the 1956 Suez crisis to get UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold to reflect their interests in his public pronouncements on the crisis. Pressing their case in UN corridors, the British ambassador reminded Hammarskjold that there was such a thing as larger political considerations and consequences. Indeed, he replied, but there is also such a thing as integrity.

This is the third and final balancing act that the UN’s atomic agency must walk: doing the right thing to protect its institutional integrity while bending to the major donors’ gentle or strong pressures to ensure its survival.

The agency must balance all three considerations against one another. And it must do so in the politicized standoffs between most Western and many developing countries over the proper role of and limits to the UN’s nuclear watchdog.

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This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Ramesh Thakur is the director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament at Australia National University in Canberra and a professor of international relations in the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy. He was vice rector and senior vice rector of United Nations University (and assistant secretary-general of the UN) from 1998–2007. Educated in India and Canada, he was also a professor of international relations at the University of Otago in New Zealand and professor and head of the Peace Research Center at the Australian National University, while also advising the Australian and New Zealand governments on arms control, disarmament and international security issues.
In addition, Thakur was a principal author of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and a senior adviser on reforms and principal writer of the UN secretary-general’s second reform report (2002). He has written or edited more than 40 books, 400 articles and book chapters. His most recent book is “The Responsibility to Protect: Norms, Laws and the Use of Force in International Politics” (London: Routledge, 2011).

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