It’s not hard to start an argument these days in Washington. President Donald Trump’s newly released budget will surely spark thousands of them, as analysts, partisans, Big Bird, and eventually members of Congress debate both sides of every issue. But there are some things to which most reasonable people can and should agree. Chief among these is that the United States has a long-standing and continuing interest in preventing countries and terrorists from building nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the only way to interpret Trump’s proposed budget cuts for the State Department and the international programs they fund is that he couldn’t care less.
One of the critical investments the State Department makes is funding our obligations, and then some, to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a U.N.–affiliated agency the United States helped create in 1957. Yes, you heard a lot about the IAEA during the Iran nuclear agreement debate. You may also remember them from the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when they correctly stated Iraq had no nuclear program — warnings ignored by the previous GOP administration.
Regardless of what you may have heard about the United Nations or the IAEA itself, the agency may be the greatest national security bargain the United States has.As the old cliché goes, if we didn’t have it, we have to invent it. Washington provides a significant percentage of the IAEA’s annual budget and, on top of that, additional resources known as voluntary contributions. This money ensures that the IAEA can handle its current responsibilities by having the tools, people, skills, and resources needed to do its job — which is, to put it bluntly, to help keep us and other countries safe and enable all to benefit from the peaceful benefits of nuclear technology.
So in plain English, what does that mean? IAEA inspectors are on the ground in Iran monitoring that Tehran fully complies with its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It helps monitor nuclear materials in over 50 countries to deter diversion and to certify that none have been syphoned off for illicit weapon programs. It helps ensure the safety of nuclear facilities all over the world. It’s increasingly on the front lines of preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons. Oh, and it’s also part of the fight against the Zika virus and other deadly insect-borne diseases (they nuke male insects so they can’t breed, poor guys).