The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) stand at a crossroads over the nuclear ambitions of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
On June 9, the Board of Governors at the IAEA declared Syria in noncompliance with IAEA safeguards.
Notably, the resolution was predicated not on information from unbiased IAEA inspections, but on intelligence provided by the United States and verified by data in the public domain. Eleven NAM countries chose to abstain from the vote to report Syria, in part because they were hesitant to rely on intelligence provided by the U.S. and its allies. The resolution stands no chance in New York as Russia and China, both of which possess veto power over possible sanctions as permanent members of the UN Security Council, will certainly oppose it.
India in particular faces a dilemma that typifies the choices facing the NAM. On October 1st, 2008 the U.S. Senate approved HR 7081: the United States-India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and Nonproliferation Enhancement Act. Championed by the Bush administration, the “123 agreement” elevated India to a de-facto internationally recognized nuclear weapons state despite New Delhi’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
A “123 agreement” is a peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement that includes the transfer of U.S.-origin nuclear material; it requires Congressional approval according to nine nonproliferation criteria stipulated in Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act. The Henry J. Hyde U.S.-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006 exempted the nuclear cooperation deal with India from some of these requirements. The deal therefore allows India to import nuclear materials and technology to fuel its nuclear power program without renouncing its nuclear arsenal, effectively reversing three decades of non-proliferation policies designed to punish India for the first ever illegal use of civilian nuclear facilities and materials in 1974.
As Michael Krepon has outlined in great detail, the U.S. appears to have received very little in return for the deal, while nuclear stability in South Asia and nonproliferation norms have suffered. Most recently, India was one of the eleven states on the IAEA Board of Governors that voted to abstain from referring Syria to the UN Security Council.
It is now obvious that the U.S.-India deal legitimized an expanding nuclear power, allowed New Delhi to operate outside the NPT standards fundamental to the global nonproliferation regime, and failed to win India’s cooperation on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
India’s noncooperation on the Syria vote illustrates the challenges facing the international non-proliferation community. The vote was complicated and politicized by wariness over an American conflict of interest in the region. Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Nuclear Policy Program, made a perceptive assessment of the political concerns facing the NAM, which included:
1. The credibility of information was called into question, since IAEA inspectors on the ground never actually verified the suspected nuclear reactor at Dair Alzour. The NAM countries are wary of relying on superpower intelligence that operates with an inherent bias.
2. The lack of a decisive judgment by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano exacerbated the credibility issue. Mr. Amano was only willing to assert that Dair Alzour was “very likely” a reactor, and urged that “reasonable inferences must be drawn.”
3. The destruction of the installation at Dair Alzour by an Israeli air raid in 2007 has severely reduced the urgency of a Syrian nuclear threat.
4. Non-Aligned countries continue to express their outrage over the gross breech of national sovereignty constituted by the 2007 Israeli strike.
5. The resolution for noncompliance was been presented at a time when popular uprisings threaten the stability of the Assad regime, engendering the suspicion that the resolution is motivated by a desire for regime change.
Given these extraneous political considerations, our failed attempt to purchase the cooperation of an NAM leader is crippling.
In another astute commentary, Mr. Hibbs suggests that reliance on combined U.S. and public domain intelligence could become a new paradigm for verifying noncompliance with IAEA safeguards. Given that most NAM countries remain at best skeptical and self-interested actors in the non-proliferation community, this paradigm would severely undermine IAEA credibility and trust unless a clearer definition of noncompliance is established. If the increasing politicization of the IAEA board of governors can be separated from clearly defined technical requirements for a resolution on noncompliance, then NAM countries may be more willing to overlook “biased” sources of intelligence or disregard offensive unilateral action like the 2007 Israeli air strike.
Later this year, the board of governors at the IAEA may vote on a resolution to once again declare Iran in noncompliance with IAEA safeguards. The evidence that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons capability will probably be decisively more convincing than the case against Syria. Nevertheless, the political thicket that hampered the Syria resolution may foreshadow the political impediments that will need to be surmounted vis a vis Iran.