To make the Iran Deal work, we need to fund the world’s nuclear watchdog

This Thursday in Washington, President Obama will convene heads of state from around the world for a fourth Nuclear Security Summit, a conference of world leaders dedicated to preventing nuclear terrorism and securing stockpiles of nuclear material around the world.

With terrorist organizations and rogue nations fomenting instability around the world, and as the international community’s leading powers work to enforce the nuclear deal with Iran, the challenge of preventing the use of nuclear weapons is not an academic exercise. As a global community, we need to take real, tangible steps to meet this challenge. The best first step we can take is to support the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – the world’s nuclear watchdog.

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Since 1957, world powers have tasked the IAEA with preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and making sure countries honor their international obligations to use nuclear technology and material for peaceful purposes.

With the agreement reached between the U.S., five other global powers,and Iran last summer, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), ensuring the IAEA can do its job has never been more important. The JCPOA gives the IAEA unprecedented access to monitor Iran’s nuclear efforts through highly intrusive physical inspections and 24-7 remote monitoring technology. Under the terms of the deal, the IAEA also has the authority to monitor and oversee every stage of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle, from the mines from which uranium is extracted from the ground, to the facilities that enrich it into material that can be used in a nuclear bomb.

Conducting these inspections and maintaining this level of oversight is the IAEA’s job – but world powers have a responsibility to make sure the agency has the resources it needs. Access alone is not enough: to turn that access into effective oversight, while still fulfilling its regular mission of ensuring nonproliferation around the world, the IAEA needs long-term, sustainable funding.

In January, I traveled to the IAEA’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria, where I heard in person from Director General Yukiya Amano about the challenges the agency faces in fulfilling its new responsibilities under the JCPOA. Finding reliable funding is at the top of that list of challenges. A recent report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office echoes Amano’s concerns, stating, “the IAEA faces potential budgetary and human resource management challenges stemming from JCPOA-related workload.”

As Brent Scowcroft, who served ably as National Security Advisor to both President Gerald Ford and President George H.W. Bush, wrote in an August 21, 2015, Washington Post op-ed, Congress “should ensure that the International Atomic Energy Agency, other relevant bodies, and U.S. intelligence agencies have all the resources necessary to facilitate inspection and monitor compliance” with the nuclear deal.

It is no understatement to say that the IAEA’s very credibility is on the line as it begins to monitor, inspect, and verify the status of Iran’s nuclear program.

The IAEA could not do this job without the ongoing support of the United States. America develops the inspections technology on which the IAEA depends, and we train and support IAEA inspectors, scientists, and staff, particularly through our system of national laboratories. Since 1980, every single IAEA inspector has been trained at least once at the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. At any given time, approximately 20 percent of IAEA inspectors are undergoing training or re-training at national labs across the United States.

The commitment made by American scientists and taxpayers to the IAEA has taken on even greater importance since the Iran nuclear deal took effect. Yet the President’s budget request does not include an increase of $10.6 million – the full amount the IAEA has stated it requires to effectively implement the nuclear agreement. Just as troubling, it is only a short-term fix.

Reliable, sustained funding is essential to the IAEA’s ability to attract the best and brightest scientists and utilize cutting edge technologies needed toconduct its global non-proliferation work beyond the Iran deal and take full advantage of the unprecedented access granted under the deal, not just this year, or the next five, but over the next 25 years and beyond.

That’s why I’ve urged Congress to increase America’s voluntary contribution to the IAEA to a level $10.6 million above the President’s request, and to commit to sustained support in the future.

This increase will provide the IAEA with the resources it needs to ensure safe, secure, and peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology arounf the world. Nowhere is this more important than Iran. With the resources I propose the IAEA can implement the JCPOA in the short-term, while the international community works to ensure a reliable, long-term source of funding. American representatives at the U.N. offices in Vienna could direct extra funding to specific projects or withhold it from others, allowing us to address unanticipated needs without discouraging other donors from fulfilling their obligations.

Whether my colleagues supported or opposed the JCPOA, surely we can agree that it is in America’s interest to see the IAEA succeed and attract the brightest young scientists from around the world, and to train and deploy the most effective inspectors, for years to come.

In a speech to the United Nations in December 1953, President Eisenhower proclaimed U.S. support for an international organization charged with putting nuclear technology “into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.” Four years later, that organization became the IAEA.

Today, to fully and sustainably fund the IAEA is to make a sound investment in a highly technical organization that directly contributes to international peace and security. While aggressively enforcing the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran demands involvement from every actor on the international stage, increasing America’s voluntary contribution to the IAEA by an additional $10.6 million is a step Congress can take today that would send a clear, unambiguous message to Iran and the world.

If the United States is to continue to lead this effort, Democrats and Republicans must come together to aggressively enforce the terms of the nuclear deal. Let’s start by giving the IAEA the resources it needs to do its job.


Coons is a member of the Senate Appropriations, Foreign Relations, Judiciary, Small Business and Entrepreneurship, and Ethics committees