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Nuclear Mind Reading

On April 9th, Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative, hosted James Acton, a Lecturer in the Centre for Science and Security Studies in the Department of War Studies at King's College London for a talk entitled "Nuclear Mind Reading: Iran's Nuclear Intentions and the IAEA". Acton analyzed the IAEA's ability to assess states' intent?as opposed to their capabilities?and then asked what the IAEA means when it announces that an issue is ?no longer considered to be outstanding.? Finally, he discussed the implications this analysis has for the enforcement of arms control treaties.

Acton began by reconstructing the contentious debate on Article II of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Article II, the injunction that states not manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or nuclear explosives, had a central dilemma because of the indeterminacy of deciding what counts as "manufacture." For example, if a state were to develop all the parts but did not assemble them, then does it "count" as a violation of Article II? To overcome these problems, a purpose criteria was introduced which made the intent of a state the deciding factor in determining violations. Acton argued, however, that this intent clause has seriously hurt the ability to enforce nonproliferation agreements.

People often look to the IAEA to judge intent yet, as Acton noted, this mistakes the role of the IAEA. Its self-professed goal is fact-gathering and not to determine intent. The IAEA determines the what of a state's action and not the why. Thus, it is unable to perform the kind of "nuclear mind reading" necessary to determine violations. This is the proper realm of intelligence agencies who can use human and signals intelligence but the IAEA does not and should not have this capacity. Iran exemplifies these problems. The IAEA has recently closed the file on Iran because it says there are no outstanding issues and this has been interpreted to mean there is no intent to acquire a nuclear weapon. The IAEA makes, however, no such claim. Furthermore, whenever the IAEA finds suspicious activity Iran claims innocent usage and thus the definite proof demanded by states is impossible to find. Intent serves, in the end, as a loophole allowing states to side-step compliance. Acton argues that, beyond the Iranian crisis, a dangerous precedent has been set because debates have crystallized around intent without a credible way of assessment.

Acton concluded that the role of intention must be superceded by an objective, rules-based regime. He proposed that, in enforcement by international bodies, states should be penalized on what it has done and not why it acted. This provides an added deterrent effect because states can no longer deploy the motives card. In state-to-state interactions, however, intentions are crucial because one needs to understand why a state such as Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons. This happens when states talk behind the scenes but not publicly. Acton provided, finally, a set of implementation mechanisms to transition to this new process. First, states should stop talking about intent in international forums. The US, UK, France, and Germany have been guilty of this regarding Iran allowing China and Russia to bandwagon upon it to support Iran. Second, rules should equally applied without exemptions for US friends and allies. Lastly, states should consider Pierre Goldschmidt's proposal for a generic UN resolution to create automatic punishments for states found in non-compliance.

- Kailash Srinivasan is an intern for the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative.


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  • Dr. James Acton
    Lecturer, Centre for Science and Security Studies, Department of War Studies
    King’s College London
  • Dr. Jeffrey Lewis
    Director, Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative, New America Foundation
    Publisher, ArmsControlWonk.com