As inspectors begin to delve into Iran's nuclear program, the head of the United Nations atomic watchdog agency warned this week that safeguards meant to prevent nuclear proliferation are becoming increasingly battered.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a phone interview with the Monitor that the discovery of nuclear programs in places like Iran and North Korea has put his organization under increasing stress. "We are acting as a fireman, and a fireman is not sufficient," he says.
Mr. ElBaradei wants more countries to sign onto nuclear-inspection protocols. In the long term, he says, all nuclear materials used in commercial programs should come under multinational control. He reminded nuclear-weapons states that the best path to nonproliferation is to address security concerns of countries that may want to go nuclear.
The statements come even as a dozen IAEA inspectors are in Iran to verify last month's pledge by Tehran to suspend its uranium- and plutonium-enrichment programs and allow extensive inspections.
According to IAEA officials, the agreement was reached just before the IAEA released a confidential report saying that Iran repeatedly breached its nuclear safeguard agreements under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The report found that Iran secretly produced highly enriched uranium and plutonium, the essential ingredients for making a nuclear weapon.
While the amounts were not large enough to produce a nuclear bomb, the program spurred speculation about Iran's nuclear intentions. "We cannot state with certainty that this is a peaceful program, but we do not have proof that it is a weapons program," ElBaradei says. "We need to do much more in-depth work before we come to a conclusion."
Chief among inspectors' priorities will be determining Iran's suppliers. Iran has said that the highly enriched uranium traces found in its centrifuges were the result of earlier contamination from suppliers. Tehran has acknowledged that its centrifuges - the machines used to enrich uranium - were based on designs by the European consortium Urenco. Pakistan used Urenco technology to develop its own nuclear weapon. While some parts of the Iranian program carry Pakistani markings, it is not clear if they were supplied by governments or through middlemen.
ElBaradei says a number of governments would be asked to help in the investigation. "Every country is in the spotlight," he says. "If we don't get cooperation, we will have to report that. I don't think any country wants to be in that position."
ElBaradei has often pushed for Iran's strict compliance with the NPT without alienating the regime entirely. "He wants Iran to know that there are consequences for willful noncompliance," says one State Department official. "On the other hand, he feels a need to keep them working within the system. He doesn't want to see Iran become another North Korea."
In the longer term, ElBaradei has proposed more far-reaching measures to insure against proliferation. He argues that while the vast majority of countries have signed the NPT, fewer than 20 percent of them have signed additional protocols that would allow for extensive inspections. "That is an abysmal record," he says.
Those protocols were established in the 1990s, after the first Gulf war, when inspectors discovered that Saddam Hussein had secretly developed a nuclear weapons program. The program was dismantled.
ElBaradei would like to put the nuclear material in all civilian programs under multinational control. "It should not be under the control of just one state because, should that state move in the other direction, the margin of security is just a few months - too close for comfort," he says.
He argues nuclear-weapons states like the US and its allies must address the security concerns of nonnuclear states. "Unless we will start thinking about a larger security framework, we will have countries that will always be thinking about how to develop nuclear weapons or chemical, or biological weapons," he says. "That is not as impossible as it was in the past."
Gary Saymore, of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, says it will not be easy to implement such proposals. "There are a lot of obstacles," he says. He adds that European nations and the Japanese would probably object to putting their civilian nuclear programs under multilateral control. ElBaradei admits such changes are difficult, but worries that without them, the world could see another use of nuclear weapons within his lifetime. "At the rate we are going, I will not be totally shocked if it were to happen. That is why we need to do something."