The OPCW and Syria: learning the lessons of verification


Verification remains a key challenge on the road to nuclear disarmament and the continued non-proliferation of WMD. It is complex, politically and technically, and ultimately can only be sustainable in the long run if it is freely entered into, non-discriminatory, universally applicable and credible. Does the OPCW hold lessons for confidence in multilateral nuclear disarmament?

The Nobel Committee recognised the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons" and bringing about the current perception of “the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law”. The OPCW works with signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to assist them in destroying chemical weapons, to respond to claims of chemical weapon use, and to verify that chemical precursors are not diverted from civil purposes. The CWC does not allow possession of chemical weapons and is thus universal. Under Article X a state can request the OPCW to undertake a ‘challenge inspection’ wherever the issue of non-compliance is suspected, though this essential facility is in danger of falling into irrelevance through disuse.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which oversees the production and use of nuclear technology, also has a similar provision, allowing it limited capabilities to conduct “special inspections” in the case of suspected non-compliance with safeguards obligations . But this is complicated by the politics of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which forms the context of its operation. The NPT recognises five nuclear weapon states (NWS) (US, UK, France, Russia and China), but also their responsibility to engage in disarmament negotiations.

Nuclear weapons stockpiles have dramatically reduced since the Cold War, but the attachment to the weapons and their postures seems as entrenched as ever. Every nuclear-armed state is engaged in a modernization program. For example, the United States is engaged in a ‘life extension’ of its current free-fall B61 bombs stationed in Europe and on their strategic bombers. The B61-12 will combine four different B61 variants, and represents a new class of weapon. According to Hans M. Kristensen from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), the B61-12 is a ‘new nuclear bomb type that is not currently in the nuclear stockpile’ which has ‘improved military capabilities’.

These types of modernization programs reduce confidence in the intention of the NWS to abide by their NPT Article VI commitments and by extension, highlight institutionalised discrimination. This only serves to undermine the legitimacy of the IAEA in the eyes of many within the majority world, a situation that ill-serves global security and the need to prevent nuclear proliferation.

Part of the perceived credibility gap can be located in the unequal focus on non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) over NWS. Iran is an obvious example. In recent years, the Iranians have complained that the increasing focus on their own nuclear program has not been based on credible analysis and verification, but one that is politically motivated. In November 2011, the IAEA released an intelligence report examining Iran’s previous attempts at developing a nuclear weapon. It was noteworthy for the unprecedented critical tone of the report that bordered on the political. That action feeds the Iranian perception that the IAEA is being biased against them.

The IAEA are in a bind. To demonstrate just how difficult a position they are in, another report by the IAEA released last month was criticised heavily by Israel. The report states that since the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s President in March 2013, Iran ‘has stopped expanding its uranium enrichment capacity’. Fast-forward eight months, and a joint plan of action has has been brokered between the P5+1 countries (the NWS and Germany) and Iran that has resulted in a freeze in the Iranian nuclear program. A positive or negative development, depending on if you are in Tehran or Tel Aviv.

There is clearly scope for undue influence over the IAEA although that can more likely play upon its perception rather than the actual content of its work. The lesson to be learned from the OPCW and their implementation of the CWC in this respect is that they have tread the fine line of being credible, as well as being seen to be credible. There is a distinction to be made and it should not be overlooked that both components are just as important.

The IAEA as fellow Nobel Prize recipient is not a diminished organisation. It still has a robust institutional make up that can go someway toward restoring the gap between what is perceived as an immediate threat in proliferation, and that of the long term goal of disarmament of nuclear weapon states.

Looking at opportunities in the future that could help bolster the credibility of the IAEA would be the potential of a joint mission with the OPCW in regulating a Middle East weapon of mass destruction (WMD) free zone. The accession of Syria to the CWC has signalled a fluid change in circumstances in the Middle East. It has left Egypt as the only state in the region yet to sign up to the CWC, and together with Israel (which has signed but not ratified) as major stumbling blocks to creating a Middle East WMD free zone.

Israel has already expressed a willingness to move on the CWC issue, with President Shimon Peres signalling a strong interest in ratifying the treaty, which could in turn put the focus onto Egypt for stalling its own accession. Egypt views its abstention from the CWC as a form of leverage on the Israelis to join the NPT. These are well known strategic positions in the region. The challenge lies in convincing states like Israel and Egypt that through mutual verification processes, there is really no reason why a WMD free zone is entirely workable.

The very public dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons should go someway to assuring even the most skeptical observers in Tel Aviv that a verification process will be robust enough to tackle its long standing concerns over its security in the region.

There are challenges for verification within the IAEA, namely it is proliferation in the Middle East that would be the issue getting the most headlines. But if we are to learn any lessons from the success of the OPCW, it is that credibility comes from affording institutions the tools to conduct their work without bias. And that is why, after the chemical weapons saga in Syria has ended, and long after the Iranian and North Korean enrichment programs have been sufficiently resolved, the IAEA will run out of ‘rogues’ in the international system. All that will be left is what was in the beginning and that is the original proliferators, the NWS. The IAEA would do well to get a head start on fulfilling the promise of a generation that still looks achingly distant.

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