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 sceptics.
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 inspectors.
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 judgments.
ElBaradei's advisers 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.
"Amano's 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 program."
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 repeatedly."
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 Council demands.
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 November.
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.
Western government 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.
Laban Coblentz, 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 NPT
October 2003 Iran agrees to suspend uranium enrichment and to allow a regime of unannounced IAEA inspections
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
February 2010 President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announces that Iran has made its own 20%-enriched uranium
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
January-February 2012 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