I’ve  been away from this blog for a couple months working on, among other things, the subject of this post. I also knocked about a while in Rome, where I was inspired to read Helen Langdon’s magnificent biography of the painter Caravaggio. This opus was the fruit of many years of research and observation in several disciplines and Langdon stitched together a complex fabric of patronage, contemporary learned discourse, and artists’ unruly lives in a way that breathed oxygen into events that took place four centuries ago. It was a joy to read. I also assume a joy to write.

As unkind fate would have it, after having likewise built up years of experience outside of academia in another multidisciplinary field, during the last few weeks I have not been writing about the Italian seicento but about IAEA safeguards–a vocation which is usually more a curse than a pleasure.

The departure point for this post is this article about questions and objections that the IAEA has encountered in planning to extend its State-Level Concept for safeguards.

I published it two weeks ago after three months of research off and on in a half-dozen places involving maybe three dozen conversations, meetings and interviews. Before publication, I thoroughly vetted successive drafts of it, including by luminaries a few of whose names are well-known to readers of this blog.

Experience taught me I would be a damn fool not to vet this, because safeguards is, among other things, also about theology. (You don’t think so? Just give this a read and then this and you’ll see—to keep us in the Italian seicento for a moment—that the papal decree condemning Giordano Bruno to burn at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori on charges of heresy was perhaps just a tad more ultimate). Some irreverant wags might even suggest that there is a safeguards catechism, there are encyclical letters, and portentious councils.

Write about safeguards, and the theologically-minded will announce themselves. If, say, an article is about five things, A through E, I will hear from one reader that I was right about B through E but dead wrong about A; from another that praise is due for A, C , D, and E but that I was misinformed about B; and from a third that I got A through D right but that I must have invented E. I think you get the picture.

Russia and Safeguards

One of the things this latest article was about is why the Russian government is taking umbrage at plans by the IAEA to expand the scope of the SLC. Russia’s opposition emerged this year and was expressed during closed conclaves in the nuclear world’s equivalent of the Citta del Vaticano (that might have something to do with the theological character of some of these discussions). Some of the people who were in the rooms where this all took place said that some interventions got pretty…um… hefty. There were some warnings about the IAEA’s plans posing an existential threat to the future of safeguards. There were some things said implying that the IAEA secretariat should crawl into its shell. My curiosity was ignited when I was told that, during a BOG meeting in June, Russia suddenly went off on a tear about this subject, sendng some people in Board Room A into what they described thereafter as a state of profound shock.

At end of my research last month however I couldn’t identify what Russia’s specific objections to the SLC really were, exactly. Maybe in part because the Russian government told me beginning in September that it didn’t want to talk about it.

On November 29, a week after I published the piece, I was back in Vienna for the most recent meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors. There I heard from a number of people that they still didn’t quite understand the details of what all the thunder in the board room was about.

It would be fair to say that most people I quizzed including last week seem to believe that Russia’s objections are not technical but are political.  In addition to concern I had raised in the article about Russia becoming encircled by the US and its allies in the fields of intelligence collection and analysis, and concern that intelligence findings could be used by the IAEA to make judgments which thereafter might serve as justification for US military action (here the IAEA’s November 2011 findings on Iran is a flashpoint), last week people added to this list some other items that have been piling up for quite a while:  Washington’s unilateral scuttling of the ABM treaty; Russia’s decision to terminate the CTR program; Syria; Libya; a recent contentious Wassenaar round; and friction at the OSCE.

That most people will tell you they believe that Russia’s problem with the SLC isn’t fundamentally about safeguards–that it’s really about Russia’s relationship with the US and the West–also seems consistent with what happened at the tail end of the September board. Then and there, the whole gamut of Western states who do the drafting of those IAEA board resolutions on Iran, the DPRK, and Syria–Australia, Canada, the US, the EU–lined up like iron filings in statements defending the continued elaboration and implementation of the SLC

Real Safeguards Issues

So are there no safeguards-specific issues at stake here for Moscow? Apparently the answer is yes, there are some items.

Thanks in large part to Russia’s objections, in September the General Conference asked DG Yukiya Amano to report to the BOG on how he plans to go forward with the SLC. When will that happen? We don’t know. Conventional wisdom says it will be during the first half of the year, as I wrote two weeks ago. A bird told me it might be later than that–and considerably after Amano is re-elected for another four years (this could happen as early as March if no alternative candidate emerges between now and the end of this month).

In anticipation of Amano’s report to the board, I hear that Russia, the IAEA, and other member states will get into the future of the SLC over the next several months. The scholastics and canon lawyers will be called to account. (Maybe if in the midst of all this Amano is re-elected, the IAEA will vent white smoke from the M Building).

These look like the issues:

Discrimination: 

At the nonproliferation conference which Anton Khlopkov and CENESS put on in Moscow in September, I heard from Russian official people that their problem with IAEA safeguards was about discrimination but they didn’t care to elaborate. Very recently I hear that Russia is raising the issue of double standards in how safeguards are applied. Specifically, while Iran has been hammered for failure to have reported nuclear activities to the IAEA, Moscow is miffed that the IAEA in 2005 let off South Korea without a finding of non-compliance after it failed to report that it enriched uranium with a laser. If that’s a Russian objection, there are some Western experts who share it–as a matter of principle. But many will say in the same breath that South Korea’s misdeeds pale by comparison to Iran’s record of systematic deception. And the South Korean issue is not related to the SLC per se.

Which state-specific factors?

In  September Russia asked the IAEA to provide a list of state-specific factors it plans to use (if you don’t know what I’m talking about please go back and read my article) to input into IAEA safeguards judgments. Russia (and a few others) worry that the results from using these factors will be subjective.  The verdict on this from canonists at the IAEA is no, that won’t happen. Others express views which aren’t so cut and dried.

Additional Protocol

Moscow but also other states have issues concerning the future of the Additional Protocol under the continued elaboration of the SLC. One argument: After having gotten board approval for the AP in 1997, the IAEA is getting ready to move beyond the AP including by extending the scope of the SLC into countries which do not have an AP in force, implying that the goal of universalizing the AP will be sacrificed in favor of another approach to extend the IAEA’s access in states, which will not (unlike the AP) be based on a voluntary commitment by the states. Here too, the IAEA has a different view but there is lots of fat to chew on.

Future of established criteria

In the past and until now, the IAEA has used a system of established criteria (which have been revised over time) to set safeguards goals, and for years these were universally applied in all NNWS with safeguards agreements. What will happen to these criteria in the future, some states  are asking.

Infcirc/66 agreements and NWS

There has been some talk at the IAEA that the SLC may be implemented in NWS as well as in NNWS and that it may be applied in countries with Infcirc/66 agreements. (One of the latter countries denies that will happen. I’m also told that it is certain that Russia has no issues with applying the SLC in Russia or other weapons states. Don’t bet on seeing this happen anytime soon.)

Use of Intelligence Information

You will hear all over the safeguards universe that Moscow is really worried about this–not only before Amano’s November 2011 Annex on PMD was sent to the board, but relentlessly thereafter. Some people (not only in Moscow) will also tell you they believe that the IAEA is getting so wrapped up in the PMD issue that it (notwithstanding other potential show-stoppers) could seriously inhibit a deal with Iran happening after the beginning of the year.

Who makes safeguards policy?

The IAEA secretariat asserts (in part backed by the record of the decision of the board to take note of the Secretariat’s initial implementation of Integrated Safeguards in 2002) that it alone makes policy on safeguards implementation. This September, Russia asserted that the Board of Governors should approve the SLC. The board did approve the AP in 1997–but that was a measure which clearly exceeded the IAEA’s then-existing legal mandate. So far, the IAEA is holding the line that the SLC is consistent with its existing authority.

Fiat Lux

In 1850, Charles Dickens, who was publishing a magazine called Household Words, took aim at deficiencies in the British court system and, specifically, at the Court of Chancery. The legal profession then filled his mailbox with protests, Dickens said later, expressing the view that his warnings pointed to “a trivial blemish in the rate of progress.”

Same here. Some people will tell you that Russia’s problem with safeguards will vanish overnight by mid-2013. Will it? If there is no obstacle to Amano’s re-election early next year, that outcome will in fact be more likely. But a Russian climb-down behind the scenes also assumes there is no bigger strategic or political dimension to Moscow’s problems. That’s not what I have been hearing. While the conventional wisdom is that Amano will report to the board over the next six months, it’s more likely that before all this is settled the game will go into extra innings–maybe even into 2014 including for personnel reasons.

Russia’s view that the future of IAEA safeguards concerning the SLC should be decided by the BOG appears to be a unique point of view. There are other states waiting in the wings. How Amano and, especially, the P-5, handle this over the next six months will tell whether this matter will be softly put to rest.