What Effect Will Resignation of Iran Hard-Liner Have on IAEA?

The International Atomic Energy Agency “said on Thursday its top inspector Olli Heinonen, head of investigations into Iran and Syria, has resigned for personal reasons after nearly 30 years at the Vienna-based organization,” reports Reuters.

Heinonen, 63, is head of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) safeguards department which verifies that countries’ nuclear programs are not being diverted for military use. [He] is probably best known for giving a presentation to diplomats on Iran in 2008 which indicated links between projects to process uranium, test explosives and modify a missile cone . . . for a nuclear warhead.

As those in the disarmament community are well aware, the IAEA is wrought with a deep fissure. In autumn of last year, at Arms Control Wonk, Jeffrey Lewis quoted then-journalist Mark Hibbs, famed for busting the A.Q. Khan nuclear smuggling ring.

During preparations by the IAEA and the board for a routine board meeting held last month, sources close to the IAEA said that senior officials in two departments, responsible for verification and diplomacy, respectively, had strongly disagreed over whether data obtained by the IAEA concerning alleged nuclear weaponization activities by Iran is authentic. … Officials at . . . the diplomatic arm [known as Expo] of the agency, have raised concerns that evidence may be faked, as Iran has charged. … In recent years the two departments [Expo and verification, the latter headed by Heinonen -- RW] have differed about how to handle sensitive allegations that member states [such as Iran have been guilty of] safeguards violations. …

Since 2003, when the IAEA determined that evidence brought forth by the US suggesting Iraq had resumed nuclear weapons work was fabricated, officials at Expo and [former Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei's office] have been wary that the US has tried to manipulate the IAEA during its investigation of Iran, according to officials from IAEA states.

In other words, Ollie Heinonen was an Iran hard-liner. Whereas Expo and ElBaradei, concerned the West was using Iran’s dodginess about a nuclear weapons program as a pretext for an attack, might have given Iran the benefit of the doubt. (That’s also the source of charges that ElBaradei exceeded the scope of his title.)

No word yet on whether the fissure spurred Heinonen to resign or whether he just wanted to play golf (ElBaradei’s passion, actually). Reuters also reports: “Diplomats said new IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano . . . had said in private there would be changes in the agency’s top staff.”

It’s possible that Amano didn’t want Heinonen leaning on him to lean on Iran. On the other hand, he may have valued Heinonen’s fervor about bringing Iran to task and just sought to replace him with an individual with whom he felt more comfortable. Reuters again: “The IAEA said his position should be filled soon. One of [Heinonen's] deputies is Herman Nackaerts who oversees Iran inspections and holds the position Heinonen had before he was promoted.”

The larger question is whether Amano sees himself and the IAEA as the roadblock of last resort to Western aggression against Iran.