Graphic source: International Atomic Energy Agency,

July 02, 2009

Changes in IAEA Leadership and Findings from the IAEA's June Report: Implications for Iran Policy

On July 2, Yukiya Amano secured the votes to become the IAEA’s next director general. IranTracker examines the effect that the IAEA’s leadership transition and June report on Iranian nuclear activities will have on US policy towards Iran.

IAEA Report Summary

According to the June 2009 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility now houses more than 7,000 centrifuges – 5,000 of which actively enrich uranium.[1] This represents a nearly thirty percent increase over the 5,400 total centrifuges, with 3,900 actively enriching, identified by the IAEA in February.  According to an unconfirmed report citing several unidentified IAEA member diplomats, Iran also reportedly rejected an IAEA request to install additional surveillance cameras at the Natanz facility.[2] Beyond Natanz, the IAEA reports that Iran once again denied an IAEA request for inspectors to access the heavy water research reactor at the Arak facility and conduct design inspections.[3]  The heavy water production plant and heavy water reactor currently under construction at Arak could support plutonium reprocessing activities—making the reactor a potential source of the plutonium required for nuclear weapons.[4] The report concludes by noting that Iran has not implemented additional UN safeguards agreements or cooperated with the IAEA on issues that require information necessary to “exclude the possibility of military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear program.[5] 

Mohamed El Baradei, the IAEA’s current director general, underscored the IAEA’s concerns this month, stating “It is my gut feeling that Iran would like to have the technology to enable it to have nuclear weapons.”[6] Days later, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Ashghar Soltanieh, told journalists that: “The whole Iranian nation are [sic] united...on (the) inalienable right of (having a) nuclear weapon.” Reportage on the event, however, claimed Soltanieh misspoke.[7]   

Iran’s uranium enrichment program has enjoyed historic support from within Iranian leadership. The expansion of Iran’s nuclear program during Ahmadinejad’s presidency was in fact facilitated by the foundation laid by his primary challenger in the recent presidential election, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Mousavi approved the initial purchase of centrifuges in 1987 from Abdul Qadeer Khan’s black market nuclear network.[8] A November 2007 IAEA report stated that Iran’s 1987 “decision to acquire centrifuge technology was taken by the President of the AEOI [Atomic Energy Organization of Iran] and endorsed by the Prime Minister of Iran.”[9]  And in the recent aftermath of the disputed election, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remarked that the discussion over Iran’s nuclear program “belong[s] to the past.”[10] 

IAEA Leadership Succession 

The IAEA is in the process of a transition in leadership. El Baradei will step down from his position in November and Japan’s ambassador to the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, will assume the position of director general. On July 2nd the IAEA board elected Amano with twenty three out of thirty five votes, sufficient for victory.[11]

Amano, described in one media report as a ‘low-key technocrat’, reportedly seeks to confine the IAEA’s visibility to technical issues, stating that: “The mandate has been decided by statute…The activities of the director general are under the control of the board of governors.”[12] In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Amano stated that he views the IAEA as a technical – not political – agency.[13]

Closely trailing Amano for the position of director general was South Africa’s ambassador to the IAEA, Abdul Samad Minty. Minty, a “charismatic diplomat known for his outspokenness,” reportedly received backing from developing nations supportive of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.[14] In March, upon being nominated by South Africa as a candidate for the director generalship, Minty delivered a statement on his view of the IAEA, concluding: 

“There have been views expressed about the so-called ‘political’ role of the IAEA. Suffice to recall that although the Agency has a specific technical role, it is also mandated to report to the United Nations Security Council. This unique role differentiates it from other technical international organisations, and therefore the Agency by its very nature has a political role. However, we should take care neither to over-emphasise nor ignore this role.”[15] 

El Baradei, for his part, had called for the agency board’s countries to collaborate and put forth a “consensus candidate” for the position.[16] In this regard, the July 2nd vote failed to deliver a unanimous candidate to lead the agency. Although Amano officially won the seat, nearly a dozen nations still backed Minty on July 2 and it was only an abstention by one member nation that ultimately produced the two-thirds majority that tipped the scale in Amano’s favor.[17] This divide has the potential to hamper Amano’s leadership of the IAEA.

U.S. Views

As the IAEA report confirms that Iran’s enrichment activities increase the potential for a nuclear weapons capability, President Obama and other senior officials in May expressed that the U.S. is “engaged in a process to reach out to Iran and persuade them that it is not in their interest to pursue a nuclear weapon and they should change course.”[18] Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen reiterated that “Iran’s strategic objective is to achieve nuclear weapons” – a path he believes that the Iranian leadership remains committed to.[19]

Despite this rhetoric, the administration’s official position on Iran’s enrichment program remains unclear. Media reports in the New York Times and other outlets indicate that American officials are considering dropping a precondition that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment activities before negotiations can begin.[20] Other reports highlight administration efforts to incentivize Iran to relinquish its enrichment activities, in some cases temporarily. The P5+1 group, which includes the U.S., reportedly resubmitted a 2006 proposal which would grant Iran diplomatic and economic incentives in exchange for a suspension of uranium enrichment and a temporary “freeze-for-freeze” offer whereby Iran ceases enrichment and the U.N. suspends sanctions as an interlude negotiations.[21] Ahmadinejad publically rebuffed the freeze-for-freeze proposal in May, stating that the “nuclear issue is a finished issue” for Iran.[22]  

Earlier in June, a senior Obama administration official reportedly privy to arms-control policy discussions suggested that the administration may consider supporting the concept of an international fuel bank to guarantee Iran a supply of enriched uranium necessary for fueling civilian reactors. According to the official quoted in the Boston Globe, the fuel bank proposal aims to discourage nuclear weapons proliferation and “…create a system of incentives where, as a practical matter for countries that want nuclear power, the best way to obtain their fuel and to handle fuel services is through a new international architecture.”[23] 

The senior White House coordinator for arms control and counter-proliferation, Gary Samore, raised the idea of an international fuel supply in May 2009: 

“…we think it's important that we try to develop a new global architecture for nuclear cooperation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. There are lots of ideas out there, like fuel banks and international fuel centers, which would obviate the need for countries to develop their own fuel-cycle capabilities, and as we expect nuclear power will expand, including to countries that don't currently have nuclear power facilities, it's important that we develop a system that will make it possible for nuclear power to spread without fuel-cycle capability spreading as well.”[24] 

Several countries, including Kazakhstan, have volunteered to host a proposed fuel bank. And while Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated in April: “We think that (Kazakh President) Nursultan Nazarbayez’s idea to host a nuclear fuel bank is a very good proposal,”[25] Iranian leaders have not accepted the fuel bank concept as an alternative to an indigenous enrichment program. Ahmadinejad continues to insist on Iran’s right to enrich uranium domestically, and in April, Mousavi told the Financial Times that: “No one in Iran would accept [uranium enrichment] suspension.”[26]  

The concept of an international fuel bank has also faced resistance from members of the IAEA’s governing board. El Baradei, a strong proponent of an IAEA-monitored fuel bank, has attempted to lobby the board’s members to develop a detailed proposal on the issue. On June 18, however, Reuters reported that a bloc of board members from “developing” nations rejected the agency chief’s request “to develop a detailed plan” for a fuel bank on grounds that it would restrict their sovereign rights to develop a civilian nuclear program.[27]  

On June 26, President Obama stated that the P5+1 group is “working to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capacity.”[28] Iran’s uranium enrichment activities – backed by unrelenting domestic political support – in the midst of a transition in the IAEA leadership present challenges to that effort.

[1] IAEA Director General, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran, GOV/2009/35, June 17, 2009.  Accessed June 17, 2009.
[2] “Sources: Iran denies UN nuke agency camera request,” Associated Press, June 12, 2009.  Accessed June 12, 2009.
[3] IAEA Director General, June 17, 2009.
[4] For a summary of the significance of heavy water reactors in Iran’s nuclear program, see: Maseh Zarif, “Overview of Iran’s Nuclear Program,”, April 2009.
[5] IAEA Director General, June 17, 2009.
[6] Alan Cowell, “U.N. Atomic Energy Chief Says Iran Wants Bomb,” New York Times, June 17, 2009.
[7] “Bombshell: Iran envoy in nuclear weapon slip-up,” Agence France Presse, June 17, 2009.
[8] Jay Solomon, “Challenger Mousavi Has Conservative Past,” Wall Street Journal,  June 17, 2009.
[9] IAEA Director General, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006) and 1747 (2007) in the Islamic Republic of Iran, GOV/2007/58, November 23, 2007.  Accessed April 24, 2009.
[10] News conference given by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after presidential elections, Islamic Republic of Iran News Network Television (IRINN), June 14, 2009.  Accessed through World News Connection June 24, 2009.
[11] “Japan’s Amano new U.N. nuclear watchdog chief,” Reuters India, July 2, 2009.  Accessed July 2, 2009.
[12] Borzou Daragahi, “IAEA succession battle may shape nuclear agency’s future,” Los Angeles Times, March 18, 2009.  Accessed June 14, 2009.
[13] David Crawford, “Vote for IAEA Chief Is Deadlocked,” Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2009.  Accessed June 22, 2009.
[14] Daraghi, Los Angeles Times, March 18, 2009.
[15] Abdul Samad Minty, Statement at the IAEA Board of Governors Meeting, Vienna, March 4, 2009.  Accessed June 17, 2009.
[16] “IAEA needs consensus candidate: ElBaradei,” Reuters, June 12, 2009.  Accessed June 17, 2009.
[17] Reuters, July 2, 2009.
[18] Remarks by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, May 18, 2009.
[19] Admiral Mike Mullen, ABC News “This Week” Interview, May 24, 2009.  Accessed May 25, 2009.
[20] David Sanger, “U.S. May Drop Key Condition for Talks With Iran,” New York Times, April 13, 2009; Ewen MacAskill, “Obama to drop uranium precondition for Iran nuclear talks,” Guardian, April 14, 2009.
[21] Mark Heinrich and Sylvia Westall, “ElBaradei prods Iran not to ignore Obama overture,” Reuters, June 15, 2009.
[22] Parisa Hafezi and Zahra Hosseinian, “Iran rejects Western calls for nuclear freeze,” Reuters, May 26, 2009.
[23] Bryan Bender, “Obama seeks global uranium fuel bank,” The Boston Globe, June 8, 2009.  Accessed June 8, 2009.
[24] Arms Control Association, 2009 Annual Meeting, May 20, 2009.  Accessed June 9, 2009.
[25] Raushan Nurshayeva, “Iran supports U.S.-backed nuclear fuel bank idea,” Reuters, April 6, 2009.
[26] Najmeh Bozorgmehr (translated by Monavar Khalaj), “Financial Times interview: Mir-Hossein Moussavi,”, April 13, 2009.  Accessed  June 24, 2009.
[27] Sylvia Westfall, “Obama-backed nuclear fuel bank plan stalls at IAEA,” Reuters, June 18, 2009.  Accessed June 24, 2009.
[28] Remarks by President Obama and Chancellor Merkel of Germany in joint press availability, June 26, 2009. Accessed June 27, 2009.
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