The decision by United Nations nuclear investigators to wade into the political fray over the Iran nuclear deal is a high-risk gamble that could challenge their integrity, according to diplomats and analysts.
International Atomic Energy Agency director general Yukiya Amano is traveling to Washington where he’ll brief senators on Wednesday about how his Vienna-based organization will monitor the accord signed between Iran and world powers. Iran has already warned Amano against divulging confidential details about inspections at the briefing.
“It is a very risky endeavor,” Hans Blix, a former IAEA director general, said in a telephone interview. “I’m sure his aim is to strengthen the deal, but he is under no obligation to submit to questioning.”
The July 14 deal setting limits on Iran’s nuclear work in exchange for sanctions relief has drawn fire in the Republican-controlled House and Senate. Skeptics of the accord say they’re disturbed that the confidential monitoring arrangements between Iran and the IAEA haven’t been made public.
“The non-public nature of the separate arrangements is consistent with the IAEA’s safeguards practice,” the agency said in an e-mailed statement, noting that it has similar arrangements with more than 100 other nations. “Iran is not an exception in this regard.”
The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, California Republican Ed Royce, said Tuesday that it’s “imperative” that the IAEA reveal details of its arrangement with Iran.
“While this may not be typical IAEA practice, there is nothing typical about the Iranian threat or this nuclear agreement,” Royce wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
The agreement between Iran and the IAEA gives monitors managed access to sites and previously off-limits information. As part of their plan, Amano will issue a report to the agency’s 35-member board of governors by December about possible military dimensions of Iran’s past nuclear work.
However, Amano briefing U.S. politicians before explaining the contents of his inspection plan to the IAEA’s governing body has rankled some officials, according to three IAEA diplomats who asked not to be named in line with rules. The IAEA’s board of governors won’t convene an extraordinary session to learn details about the plan until Aug. 25, they said.
“It is a major error in judgment by Amano and compromises the independence of the agency,” Tariq Rauf, the IAEA’s former head of policy coordination, said in a phone interview. It will be the first time in more than three decades that an IAEA chief briefed a legislature, at the invitation its politicians, without first presenting safeguards arrangements to the IAEA’s board, he said.
Previous IAEA directors have briefed members of Congress on at least three occasions since 1991, the agency said in an Aug. 18 e-mail. Before traveling to Washington to meet with U.S. senators, Amano informed the board about arrangements for clarifying Iran’s outstanding nuclear issues.
Amano’s meeting will feed into a highly politicized debate under way in Washington about the agreement. Congress has until mid-September to review the accord. If lawmakers adopt a resolution disapproving the agreement -- as is likely in the Republican-controlled House and Senate -- Obama has said he will veto it. That in turn would bring a congressional effort to override the veto.
“It would have been preferable if the agency had steered clear of contentious domestic politics,” Ali Vaez, an International Crisis Group analyst, said in an e-mailed reply to questions about Amano’s briefing. “If he manages to alleviate concerns without breaching confidentiality, he strengthens the IAEA -- otherwise, he risks undermining its integrity.”
Amano’s challenge will be magnified by the fact that his briefing will take place behind closed doors, said Geneva-based Sergey Batsanov, a former Russian arms-control diplomat.
“He probably should have insisted on not having the briefing closed because that will almost automatically produce misuse and abuse of information,” according to Batsanov, a director at the Pugwash Council, a nonprofit group advocating nuclear disarmament. “The whole context is extremely charged politically.”
(Corrects to show Ex-IAEA official clarifies precedence of briefings in 10th paragraph of story published Aug. 4, adds IAEA statement in 11th.)