More thoughts on Israeli airstrikes and IAEA inspectors

Mark Hibbs has a terrific post at Arms Control Wonk, asking whether IAEA inspectors in Iran are at risk of harm from Israeli or American airstrikes:

Were the IAEA to want to carry out a short-notice inspection at Fordow or Natanz, it wouldn’t tip its hand in advance and would want to be prepared. That would imply that, in order to reap the advantage of surprise, inspectors would have to be pretty close to the enrichment plants at the time Iran would be informed for the inspection to have any value. If inspectors were, say, in Tehran, it would take several hours for them to truck out to Natanz. The farther away they are, the less surprise.

We might conjecture that, absent perfect foresight or guidance, if the IAEA takes seriously the threat that Israel sometime during the rest of this year might launch surprise air strikes against Iran’s enrichment plants, it would not want to put its inspectors at risk by requesting from Iran short-notice inspections at those installations. If the IAEA were to undertake an inspection at Fordow or Natanz, it might move safeguards personnel into locations which were about to be bombed in an airstrike the IAEA didn’t know was about to happen.

There are also some excellent comments under the post, including one from former IAEA inspector Robert Kelley:

In June 1993 I was awakened by the sound of cruise missiles striking Baghdad while we of IAEA Action Team mission 21 were sleeping in the Sheraton hotel. The noise was caused by Bill Clinton’s cruise missiles striking the Iraqi intelligence headquarters in retribution for the alleged plot to kill George Bush 41 on a visit to Kuwait. Several Iraqi civilians were killed. Naturally I called Vienna as chief inspector and reported our situation to Maurizio Ziffereo, the Action Team Leader. He called the US representative to the IAEA and woke her up in the middle of the night to tell her that IAEA inspectors with three Americans on the team were in harm’s way. She replied that she had no idea of the attack and no way of warning us.

Inspectors are simply pawns in any great war game and their lives will be measured against the perceived good. It goes with the job that you may get a free tombstone.

Kelley points out that, not only might Israel not give a fig about killing IAEA personnel, but that, “in the current case Iran bars most western inspectors (US, UK, France, Germany etc.) so an attacker would know that the inspectors at risk are mostly from non-aligned states and not allies”. Israel isn’t going to want to wipe out a whole team of inspectors, but it sure as hell isn’t going to put this high up the list of mission priorities.

Kelley also observes that inspectors are at risk of hostage-taking or retribution. He notes that, after cruise missile strikes in the 1990s, “Iraq identified inspection information as being the source of the very accurate targeting of equipment that was only known from the inside of buildings”. It seems not unlikely that intelligence gleaned from inspections may be used as targeting information in any strike on Iran – and, even if it’s not, that Iran may take this view, and react accordingly.

I had three thoughts in response to the post.

First, would a night-time strike mitigate these risks? Maybe, though not necessarily. Although inspections do seem to be concentrated in daylight hours, inspectors can sometimes work late at Iranian facilities, start early, and – as you would expect – keep an unpredictable schedule. Recall, also, that in 1981 the first Israeli bombs on Iraq’s Osirak reactor were released at 6.35pm.

Second, why should short-notice inspections put inspectors at greater risk than those announced a week beforehand? This isn’t clear to me. One argument is that short-notice inspections require that inspectors reside closer to the facility in question, so that excessive travel time doesn’t negate the surprise. Inspectors’ proximity to sites therefore puts them at risk. But this seems to contain an assumption that airstrikes will have a damage radius of two-hours travel time from a target. Even though airstrikes would surely extend well beyond the boundaries of a suspect site, to encompass things like nearby power supplies and potential support sites, a radius of two-hours travel time seems really quite large.

Third, does this problem wash out if you assume – not unreasonably – that Israel has access to the inspections schedules of IAEA inspectors in Iran? While short-notice inspections may require pre-positioning inspectors uncomfortably close to sites, the decision to pre-position them to that end could have been taken sometime earlier, in a way that allows would-be bombers to take care with their targeting. Of course, this logic is more problematic if (1) the IAEA is worried about Iranian penetration of parts of their inspections team or (2) if it wishes to flexibly react to new bits of intelligence from Member States, both of which would preclude privately pre-set inspections schedules.



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