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June 2, 2022
Assessing the Nuclear Cop
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Reviewed by Andrew K. Semmel

Detect, Dismantle, and Disarm: IAEA Verification, 1992-2005
By Christine Wing and Fiona Simpson
United States Institute of Peace Press,
2013, 184 pp.

When the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force in 1970, it included a provision designating the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as its verification arm. When the IAEA was created in 1957, its principal purpose was to promote the use of nuclear energy for civilian purposes. Over the years, however, its role has changed.

Today, its more-visible function is to provide the international community with assurances that countries using nuclear science and nuclear materials are not using them to pursue weapons programs. Because of its expanded role in verification, largely through on-site inspections, the IAEA has joined the NPT as one of the two key anchors of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Over time and particularly after 1991, the IAEA has sought to strengthen its safeguards, or verification, function. The agency failed to detect Iraq’s advanced nuclear weapons program until the United Nations gave the agency special powers in Iraq in the wake of Baghdad’s defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The revelation of the Iraqi program prompted the IAEA to ask its member states for a more general enhancement of its verification authority by adopting an additional protocol, based on the 1997 Model Additional Protocol, to the standard comprehensive safeguards agreement that they reach with the IAEA. These protocols are intended to strengthen the IAEA’s authority to inspect nuclear facilities, detect illegal activities, and account for the use of nuclear materials. This was a positive step that, like most quantum leaps in strengthening the international nuclear regime, came in the aftermath of a catalytic event.

Yet, any fair analysis of the effectiveness of the IAEA and the international community in detecting safeguards violations must acknowledge that the IAEA, like all international organizations, operates in an international system that is dominated by states. Furthermore, like most international organizations, the IAEA lacks the authority to compel violators to comply with their international commitments. In other words, the IAEA can be only as effective as its member states allow it to be. Fifteen years after the agency asked its member states to adopt an additional protocol, one-third of them have failed to do so. Effective verification remains a work in progress.

What then is the overall record? How successful have the IAEA and the international community been in sounding the alarm when countries seek to conceal their nuclear programs from the agency and other countries? How effective have the IAEA and the international community been in reversing secret, incipient or advanced nuclear weapons programs once detected? What helps to explain success or failure in detection, dismantlement, and disarmament? These are important questions that have not been meticulously studied and for which observers provide differing answers.

Fortunately, Christine Wing (a board member of the Arms Control Association) and Fiona Simpson have written a deeply researched, highly readable study of the IAEA’s role in detecting and dismantling the nuclear weapons programs of four countries—Iraq, North Korea, South Africa (each in the 1990s), and Libya (largely 2003-2004)—all in the post-Cold War period. As indicated above, the international community and the IAEA had not discovered a secret nuclear program prior to 1991 or developed the means and tools for verifying that a suspect program had been effectively terminated or dismantled. Starting with Iraq in 1991, the IAEA and members of the international community broke new ground in a hurry, created new precedents, devised new verification tools, and accumulated valuable experience in international verification.

Using comparative case studies, the authors of this important book provide a detailed autopsy of all four nuclear programs and describe how lessons learned from one country might be applied to another. With that dissection of the four case studies, they identify a set of verification lessons that may have relevance to two contemporary cases, Iran and Syria, that are not part of this short volume and continue to defy international resolution.

Not surprisingly, the authors conclude that successful verification depends heavily on several factors. Among these factors are the clarity and extent of each country’s commitment to cooperating with international inspectors to reach an agreement on verification. More specifically, cooperation and success in detecting violations of safeguards agreements correlate with the extent to which a country perceives it is in its interest to cooperate with the IAEA, other interested parties, or both.

Thus, South Africa invited the IAEA to verify that it had dismantled its nuclear weapons program and eliminated its nuclear weapons just as the postapartheid government believed nuclear transparency was a price to pay for re-establishing normal relations with the rest of the world. Regime change in Pretoria led to a change in national priorities that did not include nuclear weapons.

Secret talks between Libyan authorities and their counterparts in the United States and the United Kingdom helped set the stage for Libya’s public renunciation of weapons of mass destruction. Despite some turf battles between the IAEA and both the United States and United Kingdom, the key determinant underlying the successful dismantlement of Libya’s nuclear program was Libya’s willingness to terminate its program.

In contrast, Iraq and North Korea sought to hide their nuclear weapon programs from the outside world; resisted international sanctions, including those imposed by the UN Security Council; and made international inspections and inspectors unwelcome. Over time, draconian international sanctions were imposed on both countries.

IAEA inspections in Iraq began in May 1991 with an explicit mandate to verify the accuracy of the declarations of its nuclear materials that Iraq had made to the IAEA under its safeguards agreement with the agency. The IAEA, which the Security Council empowered with special authorities to determine the accuracy of Iraq’s declaration of its use of nuclear materials, demonstrated flexibility and innovation in carrying out its mandate. The IAEA inspections in postwar Iraq marked the first time the agency undertook the task of accounting for all nuclear materials in a member state suspected of a clandestine nuclear weapons program.

The IAEA conducted 14 inspections, used swipe and area-wide environmental sampling for the first time, employed intelligence information from member states for site selection, realized more fully the benefits of unannounced inspections, and made use of global positioning satellite imagery to assist its work. The IAEA and its member states realized that verifying the accuracy of a state’s nuclear materials declaration was insufficient and that determining the accuracy and the completeness of a country’s declaration was necessary to assure the international community that the country was complying with its safeguards obligations.

When the IAEA was unable to verify the correctness of North Korea’s initial declaration in 1992, the stage was set for long-term hostility to international scrutiny that has lasted until today. Because North Korea now has conducted three nuclear weapons tests, any future verification agreement would have to include dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program and disarmament. Because the nuclear weapons program is one of North Korea’s few levers it has to extract concessions from the international community, it seems unlikely that Pyongyang would allow international inspectors to return at all or with a broad mandate.

Wing and Simpson argue that when multiple key actors get involved, there is a greater likelihood that the complexity of goals and voices will hamper effective verification and dismantlement. Here, the authors make a less convincing case. The South African and Libyan examples involved far fewer actors than did the Iraqi and North Korean cases, thereby making the verification process less cumbersome. Yet, it seems that the number of actors in each of the four cases was largely a result of the particular country’s willingness to cooperate and its calculations of the potential benefits from international inspections. At the very least, there appears to be mutual causation at work: the more a country resists external verification, the more other actors are motivated to intervene; the more outside actors get involved, the more complicated the process of verification becomes.

Finally, the authors examine the role of the IAEA in the four countries, and their analysis is interesting and instructive. They suggest a typology that portrays the IAEA in one of four different roles in the process of detection, dismantlement, and disarmament: as a sole actor (South Africa), as the most influential actor among a set of actors (North Korea at the outset but not later), as a partner with other international organizations (Iraq), and as a marginal actor in a process driven mostly by interested states (Libya). This typology seems sensible, but four countries and four different IAEA roles do not make for useful generalizations about the IAEA other than that each suspected case of noncompliance spawns its own requirements and places a premium on flexibility and learning. Collectively, the cases make the point that, in spite of the long-standing need to combat nuclear proliferation, the international tools and mechanics for doing so still are being tested and still are in their early stages of development.

The authors rightly ask, “Are the existing institutional bases and the treaties that underlie them adequate to the task of verifying nonproliferation when a state wants to hide its nuclear activities?” Although they have steadily improved over the years, international nuclear governance and the tools to detect violations of legally binding or voluntary nuclear commitments have not kept pace with international requirements. As more countries develop new civilian nuclear programs and as existing programs expand, the verification demands on the IAEA will continue to grow.

A country that is fully determined to develop a nuclear weapons program, whether inside or outside the NPT and the IAEA, can do so, although at considerable political and economic costs under the prevailing system of safeguards and international pressures. Today, Iran, North Korea, and even Syria exploit weaknesses in the nuclear nonproliferation regime and are willing to suffer international opprobrium and the negative effects of coercive diplomacy that may include a range of economic and political sanctions.

The IAEA, which is the sole international organization vested with responsibility to monitor and report on member states’ compliance with their safeguards obligations, faces a number of obstacles to carrying out that responsibility. Implicit in Wing and Simpson’s study is the acknowledgement that the IAEA not only is short on funding and authority, but also must operate with an increasingly politicized Board of Governors.

In addition, the IAEA lacks enforcement authority to make meaningful any international response to its technical judgment that a country is in noncompliance. It must rely on enforcement decisions by the UN Security Council. In the process of making a decision on what to do about a country’s noncompliance, the locus of decision-making moves from the technical reports of IAEA inspectors to the IAEA Secretariat to the Board Governors to the UN Security Council. The process grows increasingly political at each stage, and ensuring a country’s compliance with its international obligations becomes less predictable.

One important virtue of Wing and Simpson’s book is that it describes and analyzes the four tough proliferation cases in ways that are readily understandable to the lay public as well as to seasoned scholars and policy practitioners. It also shows how the IAEA must play its role as a technical international actor while being responsive to the politics and goals of the national actors on which it must rely for financial and political support.

The authors could have strengthened their book with some additional analysis of the international inspection system and its weaknesses, which are so evident with the current impasses on Iran, North Korea, and Syria. Nonetheless, Detect, Dismantle, and Disarm is a valuable contribution to the international community’s knowledge of how the IAEA safeguards system works, making clear its strengths and weaknesses.


Andrew K. Semmel is president of AKS Consulting, whose clients include the International Atomic Energy Agency. He also is executive director of the Partnership for a Secure America. From 2003 to 2007, he served as deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.