Last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) two decision-making bodies—the 35-member Board of Governors and the General Conference comprising 151 IAEA member states—held back-to-back conclaves. The meetings were routine, but some results were not.

The Board of Governors witnessed a showdown between Iran and IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano in which Iran, supported by others in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), overtly challenged Amano’s leadership. Thereafter, at the 2010 General Conference, U.S.-led diplomacy narrowly defeated an Arab effort to try to compel Israel to give up its nuclear weapons.

The conclusions from the foregoing events are tenfold:

  • First, Amano’s policy of courting the NAM, a group of 118 developing countries representing the majority of the IAEA’s members, hasn’t helped his approval rating. Amano succeeded Mohamed ElBaradei a year ago after winning a contentious Board election which was divided on North-South lines. Last month, the NAM and especially Arab states harshly attacked Amano’s handling of Middle East-related issues, keeping Amano under pressure to heed NAM interests.
  • In 2009, Amano’s election divided developing countries and advanced, mostly Western nations. Mutual suspicion in the two camps has not abated. A year ago, many observers predicted that the departure of ElBaradei and U.S. President George W. Bush would clear the air. That turned out to be wrong.
  • The NAM is now a formidable player in IAEA affairs. Until 2003, when the NAM established a chapter in Vienna, it focused on diplomacy in Geneva and New York. In Vienna, the NAM now demands that the IAEA trim its nuclear security, safety, and verification ambitions and instead focus on technical cooperation. The NAM enjoys a General Conference majority, but it aims to change the rules to secure a majority in the Board.
  • Iran’s influence in the Vienna Chapter of the NAM is considerable. At the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, held in New York, a balance was struck between Iran and the more restrained positions of Egypt and many NAM states. In Vienna, this balance is largely absent. Iran has nuclear expertise that most NAM states do not, and Iran comes to NAM meetings well prepared to advance its views.
  • Syria is winning its battle with the IAEA over safeguards compliance. Fearing a confrontation, Amano is not willing to request from Damascus a special inspection to probe allegations raised by Western states and Israel that Syria built a clandestine reactor. Last month, Syria and its NAM/Arab allies defied calls from the European Union and the United States to cooperate with Amano. Western states complained that NAM and Arab states are ignoring safeguards compliance deficits.
  • At the General Conference, the defeat of an Arab resolution calling on Israel to subject all its nuclear activities to IAEA safeguards did not signal a change in attitudes about Israel’s nuclear weapons. Rather, it resulted from concerted U.S.-led diplomacy to persuade about a dozen of the IAEA’s 151 members—none of them in the Middle East—not to support the resolution, which was similar to a resolution passed in 2009. A handful of states in Africa and Asia agreed to abstain in the interest of furthering Middle East peace and disarmament initiatives embraced by U.S. President Barack Obama.
  • However, the resolution’s defeat will have little impact on the Middle East peace process, which will be dominated by local issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians. Nuclear matters will hardly factor.
  • Nor does the defeat of the resolution necessarily imply that Israel will attend a Middle East nuclear disarmament conference in 2012. In May, the United States agreed to this NAM demand to assure that the 2010 five-year review of the NPT did not end without a final consensus agreement, following a failure in 2005. President Obama wants Israel to attend the conference, but Israel will pressure Obama to limit the meeting’s scope to permit Israel to attend without taking political risks. Whether Israel attends will depend hugely on developments in Iran the next two years—but not on IAEA diplomacy.
  • So far, Amano has played a firm hand on Iran. Iran’s boardroom war of words may have been an attempt to intimidate Amano, but it was also an act of frustration at the IAEA’s resilience in raising outstanding safeguards compliance issues. Amano, however, has also made concessions to Iran in pledging to modify public information policies and protect confidential information. But some of these changes are also favored by the advanced nuclear states which supported Amano’s election.
  • In the coming year, Iran and Syria will be hard-pressed to retain influence over the NAM in the boardroom. Of the NAM states that unflinchingly backed Iran and Syria, only Venezuela remains on the Board through late 2011. Six of the seven NAM states newly elected as non-permanent members last month are countries that want to develop nuclear power in cooperation with advanced states; the seventh is a leading uranium exporter. These states might not follow Iran and Syria. Egypt, currently the global leader of the NAM, is now off the IAEA Board. In 2012, Egypt’s NAM role will be taken over by Iran, which has heretofore failed to win election to the Board.

For nearly a year, Amano has walked an increasingly fine line between the NAM’s technical cooperation agenda and advanced states’ verification concerns in the Middle East. Conflict escalated last month because Iran and Syria were supported by the NAM members of the Board and because the same states also attacked Amano’s hands-off approach to Israel, a subject that preoccupied ElBaradei. Taking advantage of the IAEA’s lack of leverage over Israeli policy, Arab states may continue to squeeze Amano on this issue and thereby mobilize the NAM in Iran and Syria’s favor. But this outcome is not inevitable, since the NAM may also be increasingly challenged to enforce discipline among members that seek cooperation from advanced states to deploy nuclear power reactors.

A rough balance between nonproliferation and technical cooperation interests, with the IAEA at the center, has for decades governed the global system which manages nuclear technology exchange. This system could break down if either of these two objectives were to be focused on in a way that would cause serious detriment to the other. A very few states, particularly those in breach of their safeguards obligations, might favor such a development, but most others that want the benefit of nuclear cooperation will think twice before driving the system to the wall. Likewise, to obtain the cooperation of the NAM, advanced nuclear states must assure developing countries that they will be reliable, transparent, and fair.