Nuclear Iran: Five Reasons Why the IAEA Is Up to the Task

Outside view of the UN building with the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, office inside, at the International Center
Outside view of the UN building with the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, office inside, at the International Center, in Vienna, Austria, on Friday, June 8, 2012. The U.N. nuclear agency has started new talks with Iran aimed at getting access to what it suspects was the site of secret tests to make nuclear arms. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

With a nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 in place, both supporters and opponents can agree there is a key lynchpin to its successful implementation: the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Before any sanctions can be lifted, the very large job of monitoring Iran's compliance falls to the United Nation's nuclear watchdog.

In the most general terms, Tehran has agreed to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium to a fraction of what would be needed to make a bomb, halt the use of advanced centrifuges, and allow UN inspectors access to nuclear sites. In response, U.S., UN and other multilateral and bilateral sanctions on Iran will be gradually removed, but -- like the deal or not -- that can happen only after the IAEA verifies Iran is adhering to its commitments. Without it, the deal falls apart.

Monday, the UN Security Council will vote on the deal, setting in motion an IAEA report expected by the end of the year. So how do we know the Agency is up to the challenge?

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  1. It's not their first rodeo. IAEA has been on the ground in Iran for more than a decade, and they know what they're looking for. Between June 2003 and September 2010, the agency issued no fewer than 30 reports on Iran's nuclear and covert activities dating back to the 1980s. It has on several occasions blown the whistle on noncompliance -- action which has prompted the Security Council to impose multiple rounds of crippling sanctions. Their regular presence at suspicious sites has involved remote cameras, as well as regular and unannounced inspections to verify that nuclear material is not for military use.

Their expertise is not just limited to Iran, either. The IAEA has conducted high-profile investigations into North Korea, Libya, and the infamous A.Q. Khan nuclear trafficking operation based in Pakistan. There's a reason we call it the "world's nuclear watchdog."

  • They're the only neutral party. The world doesn't trust Iran, and Iran doesn't trust the world. Both have agreed to trust the IAEA. The UN body is about the only truly neutral entity with the technical expertise to verify Iran's compliance. That's probably why in a 159-page deal, the IAEA is mentioned 117 times.
  • It's all about time. The deal permits IAEA inspectors to do what they do best for more than just the immediate term. Inspections of Iran's uranium supply chain, from mines to enrichment facilities to stockpiles, are scheduled to continue for 25 years. In the meantime, if the IAEA finds that Iran violates the agreement at any point, UN sanctions can "snap back" into place.
  • They've got the cred. One of the key reasons the final talks were held in Vienna is that it's also the IAEA headquarters. Their role is considered absolutely vital, which is due, in part, to the respect they've garnered over decades. In 2005, the IAEA and its former Director General Mohamed ElBaradei were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. With a record of service like that, you can be sure the IAEA is fully dedicated to ensuring Iran complies with this historic agreement.
  • The IAEA is the Brainchild of a U.S. President. And a Republican no less. In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stood in front of the United Nations and made a speech entitled "Atoms for Peace," in which he proposed that an "International Atomic Energy Agency" be created, under the aegis of the UN, to facilitate international cooperation on peaceful uses of nuclear energy, such as agriculture, medicine, and energy in the developing world. U.S. support for the Agency has remained well intact for 10 administrations since.