WILL the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which failed to expose Saddam Hussein's covert nuclear-weapons program, do any better in ferreting out Iran's?According to White House officials quoted earlier this month, the United States government is convinced that Iran has launched a secret effort to build the bomb. Like Iraq, Iran is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and is required to place all its nuclear materials and the facilities that process them under IAEA inspection to ensure that they are not diverted for military purposes. Usually the IAEA relies on a state's honesty in declaring all of its nuclear activities and has limited inspections to declared material and facilities. Iraq repeatedly violated its NPT obligations by building and clandestinely operating nearly half a dozen secret nuclear installations. These went completely undetected by the IAEA before the Gulf War and became known only after the conflict as the result of the extraordinary United Nations/ IAEA inspections established under Security Council Resolution 687, which provided for the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Given this shaky record, how will the IAEA be able to unearth Iran's covert nuclear installations and bring them under the NPT inspection regime? Focus on Iran stemmed from a press report stating that China provided Tehran with calutron equipment. Calutrons were used in the early stages of the Manhattan Project to upgrade uranium for use in nuclear weapons and, as revealed this summer by the UN/IAEA inspection teams, Saddam had partly completed a 100-calutron plant to provide material for Iraq's bomb. Thus it appeared that with China's help, Iran's Muslim fundamentalist leaders were taking a great leap toward nuclear arms. As more details emerged about the equipment China transferred, however, the threat seemed a bit less alarming. Beijing had not provided an industrial-scale calutron capable of upgrading uranium, but rather a smaller model for separating medical isotopes. Thus Iran still remains some years away from nuclear weapons capability, though it can undoubtedly glean information about the calutron process from the Chinese equipment. In itself, this provides ample reason for US displeasure about the sale. Far more disturbing than the calutron flap, however, have been recent statements by administration sources that Iran is actively conducting research on nuclear arms and on methods for producing the necessary material to manufacture them. The location of these activities remains uncertain, but according to one US official quoted by the Associated Press, several sites are under suspicion, including an important one northwest of Tehran. Other reports, based on accounts by Iranian dissidents, have suggested a key site is at Moallem Kalayeh in the Elburz mountains, just north of Qazvin. For obvious reasons, Iran has not declared any of these sites to the IAEA. If facilities at any of these locations are producing or using nuclear materials, or if they are being built to do so, Iran is violating its IAEA obligations by not allowing agency inspectors to scrutinize the installations. In the case of Iraq, even if the existence of the country's undeclared facilities had been known, the IAEA was ill-equipped to deal with them, since its practice limited its inspections to declared installations. Although IAEA agreements with NPT parties authorize the agency to pursue "special inspections" of suspected undeclared nuclear sites, the agency has never attempted to exercise this authority. In the wake of its setbacks in Iraq, however, the organization has begun to shed its timidity. At the meeting of the IAEA's board of governors earlier this month, Director General Hans Blix's request for authority to exercise the agency's special inspection rights won support, but the board deferred a final decision on the matter until February. As a part of his special inspection mandate, Mr. Blix hopes to establish a unit to receive and evaluate intelligence supplied by the US and other IAEA members about suspected covert facilities and other NPT violations. Lacking any means of enforcement under the NPT, the IAEA board is also expected to set up procedures for involving the UN Security Council in the event that a target country refuses a special inspection or is found to have violated IAEA rules. Questions remain, however, as to whether the agency will adopt procedures that will permit sufficiently rapid special inspections to defeat efforts at deception of the kind employed by Saddam. If implemented, these initiatives should greatly strengthen the IAEA's hand. Now that the international community has been alerted to Iran's nuclear objectives, however, the organization's reputation will remain under a cloud unless it can employ its enhanced authority to constrain Tehran's ambitions. Washington has apparently identified a number of possible undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran and presumably is ready to share this information with the IAEA. If in the months ahead the agency fails to demand special inspections at one or more of these locations, and thereby leaves unchecked the nuclear-weapons program of a second Middle Eastern NPT signatory, respect for the IAEA and the treaty could sink to a new low.