Is the activity of the IAEA effective? Results of the PIR Center Open Poll

PIR Center Web Site Chief Editor
Research Fellow, Nonproliferation & Russia Program
March 2, 2023

In mid-January 2023, the PIR Center launched the Open Poll project, a cycle of public opinion surveys on topical issues of international security, nuclear non-proliferation and arms control.

The first issue of the Open Poll is devoted to the activities of the IAEA in modern conditions.

Primary survey results

Diagram 1. Distribution of votes within the survey (total database), %.

During the survey, 160 people – representatives of both Russia and foreign countries – took part in it.

Respondents were asked one question: «Is the IAEA’s activity effective in the current conditions?», and they were also given the opportunity, if they wished, to comment anonymously on their position.

As can be seen from the data presented below (see Diagram 1), the most popular was the neutral-positive thesis that the IAEA works mostly efficiently – it was chosen by 50% of the respondents. In second place is the neutral-negative thesis about the decrease in the efficiency of the Agency’s work in recent years. It was considered suitable by about 25% of the respondents.

At the same time, the polar options – theses about the clear effectiveness and inefficiency of the Agency – received the same number of votes (12.5%) and shared third place.

At the same time, if we divide the diagram into two parts – by categories of respondents (domestic and foreign, respectively), the situation will look like this (see diagram 2).

Diagram 2. Distribution of votes within the survey (segments), %.

As can be seen from the data above, the assessment of the IAEA’s effectiveness differs significantly within individual segments – in particular, in the foreign language field, a pronounced positive assessment of the Agency’s activities remains, while in the Russian-language segment, the polarization of opinions is much more pronounced, with a bias towards neutral-negative estimates.

Such a discrepancy, in turn, may be partly due to different perceptions of the IAEA’s actions in the context of crisis situations (primarily, the situation around the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant or the Iranian nuclear program).

Explanation of the respondents’ position

Diagram 3. Causes of the IAEA efficiency decrease (based on data from the commenting form), %.

It should be noted that a significant part (more than 65%) of the respondents did not wish to further comment on their position, confining themselves to expressing their opinion on the proposed issue.

However, among the respondents there were also those who wished to comment on the possible reasons for the partial decrease in the efficiency of the IAEA’s work. If we distribute the expressed assessments into enlarged groups, then at least four categories can be distinguished (see Diagram 3).

In particular, one of the key reasons respondents consider the lack of authority of the Agency’s inspectors (32%), which deprives the latter of the ability to effectively prevent unauthorized activities in the nuclear sphere.

The phenomenon of external pressure also plays a certain role (28%): according to the respondents, the increasing attempts of national states to interfere in the activities of the Agency in order to «correct» its position. And this, in turn, leads to the formation of a belief in bias (25%) and inconsistency (13%) of the representatives of the IAEA.

It is important to note that many respondents – even those who gave a negative assessment of the situation around the IAEA – admit that they still see no alternative to this institution (including as a conductor of the idea of nuclear non-proliferation), as a result of which they consider it important to focus on «strengthening the foundation» Agency and its withdrawal from the state of the growing crisis.

What’s next?

The revealed spread of perceptions of the effectiveness of the IAEA by Russian-speaking and foreign-speaking respondents (which was discussed in more detail above) is a very alarming trend and is likely to increase in the light of the ongoing transformations of the global world order.

In order to bring the IAEA out of the crisis of confidence (which directly affects the assessment of its effectiveness), it would not be superfluous to increase the presence of Russian (and, in general, non-Western) specialists in key bodies of the Agency, including in senior positions. Provided such personnel parity is achieved, the IAEA would be able to take into account the interests of a wider range of states and, thanks to this, avoid accusations of bias.

In addition, in the light of a large number of speculations and negative rumors around the IAEA (often without a rational basis), it is extremely important to raise public awareness about the activities of the Agency – as the main element in strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime – and thereby contribute to the elimination of negative constructs.