RD Interview: Laura Holgate, the new U.S. Representative to the IAEA, discusses the approach of the U.S. and Russia when it comes to the issue of nuclear non-proliferation.

Despite the crisis, Moscow and Washington are finding ways to work together in third countries to address the challenge of nuclear material security. Photo: AP

Even amidst the Ukraine crisis and the civil war in Syria, both the U.S. and Russia have made an effort to maintain constructive talks on issues that impact global security, especially nuclear non-proliferation in states such as Iran and North Korea. At times though, the nuclear non-proliferation talks have been rocky, as evidenced by Russia’s no-show at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. in late March.

In late May, the U.S. Senate confirmed Ambassador Laura S.H. Holgate, former special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director for Weapons of Mass Destruction, Terrorism and Threat Reduction on the National Security Council, as U.S. Representative to the Vienna Office of the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Holgate is one of the leading U.S. authorities on nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear security issues. In fact, her entire career has been tied to U.S.-Russia relations in the nuclear field. From 2001 to 2009, Holgate was the vice president for Russia/New Independent States Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Ambassador Holgate's interview to Russia Direct is her first published Q&A in the new capacity as U.S. Permanent Representative in Vienna, where she arrived in July. She discusses the priorities of her mission to the IAEA, the possibilities of U.S.-Russia cooperation in the nuclear field and the legacy of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which sought to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction in former Soviet states after the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

Russia Direct: Do you see a specific mission for yourself as the head of the U.S. Mission to the IAEA and other international organizations in Vienna?

Laura Holgate: I have a few things that I will be focusing on in my time here in Vienna. Obviously, it is a diverse mission. So, I want to make sure that I am supporting all of the U.S. policies and angles in all of the organizations here in Vienna, to which we are responsive.

Certainly, one of the key clusters of our priorities is the president’s Prague agenda  [expressed in Barack Obama’s speech on disarmament in Prague on April 5, 2009 — Editor’s note]. There is a lot of richness there for several of the Vienna-based entities — obviously, the IAEA with its special role on Iran, but more broadly its role on nuclear safeguards, the role on North Korea — one day, hopefully, it will be returning to monitoring opportunities there.

But certainly, following up on the Nuclear Security Summit and the Agency’s central coordinating role in that respect will be something I’ll look at. And the IAEA fuel bank — one of the specific initiatives mentioned in the President’s Prague speech. We are nearing a reality on that.

There is a lot of IAEA work in the Prague agenda, including work related to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). There is also export control-related work, which is represented here in Vienna with the Wassenaar Arrangement. [The Secretariat of the Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies — Editor’s note]. There are treaties that more generally have the support of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Another thing that I have been asked to do is to work on the contribution of the Vienna-based agencies to the sustainable development goals announced earlier this year. The IAEA obviously does an enormous amount of work in nuclear technologies and applications in support of agriculture, human health, energy, basic science and water — in addition to its security contribution.

What is not well understood by those who do not work closely with the Agency is that most of the Agency’s member states consider the IAEA to be a development agency, not primarily a security agency. We want to make sure that the Agency gets the credit it deserves for its contribution. This is not just the IAEA. UNODC, CTBTO — all have their contributions to sustainable development. So, we’ll be working to highlight those activities.

Ambassador Laura S.H. Holgate, U.S. Representative to the Vienna Office of the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

RD: What is the place of Russia in your priorities regarding the IAEA and other organizations as well? How do you see possible cooperation in this field?

L.H.: For someone who spent the bulk of my career looking for ways to cooperate with Russia, I am certainly hoping to find new opportunities here in Vienna. The U.S. and Russia share many non-proliferation goals.

Most prominent is the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is the agreement on the guarantees of the exclusively peaceful character of Iran’s nuclear program signed in July 2015 in Vienna by Iran and the P5+1 — Editor’s note].

As someone who has not followed that issue in my Washington job, coming here and sitting on the sidelines of the recent Joint Commission meeting in July, it was really remarkable to see the common approach of the P5+1 in that process, and Russia in particular. That was gratifying to see up close how that manifested itself.

The U.S. and Russia were also able to cooperate in bringing the 2005 amendment to the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material into force. [By May 8, 2016 two thirds of signatories of the 2005 document ratified it, so the legally binding amendment came into force — Editor’s note]. We worked together last fall on some parallel demarches. Not everybody understands that. But that was in the middle of the difference of views we had on the Nuclear Security Summit.

And yet we could agree that it was an important instrument of nuclear security — summit or no summit — and we had a common interest in pursuing it. I think we can both claim some credit for the entry into force in May of that amendment and strengthening the legal foundation for nuclear security.

I look forward to finding additional ways to work here with Russian Ambassador [Vladimir] Voronkov [Russia's Permanent Representative to the International Organizations in Vienna — Editor’s note] and his team in support of activities in the IAEA, but also elsewhere. Obviously, in Mr. Yuri Fedotov [Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime — Editor’s note] we have a strong Russian partner, and I know Russia takes a great interest in that organization as well.

There is much that U.S. and Russia can and should be working on together here in Vienna, and I look forward to building those opportunities.

Also read: "After the Nuclear Security Summit, Washington awaits Moscow's move"

RD: I heard a number of times from Russian diplomats working here that both Russians and Americans working at the international organizations in Vienna were able to keep the IAEA and other agencies free of the politicization of the recent period, with its increased tensions between Moscow and Washington and difference of views on many things. Do you agree that’s the case or is it an exaggeration?

L.H.: I think it’s variable, quite frankly. I think there are some instances in which those tensions do not intervene at all. I think there are some others, where they are fairly visible, if bounded. As for the Wassenaar Arrangement, it’s been very difficult to come to consensus documents because of the differences of views on the Crimea situation.

And there are moments in the IAEA as well where the status of nuclear facilities in Crimea obviously generate very strong differences of view in how the Agency should be characterizing those, what the Agency should be doing about them. So, I hope we can limit that politicization. I think the U.S. and Russia have a shared interest in a strong, independent and technically capable IAEA, and we can look for ways to improve our joint work there.

RD: You were one of the key organizers of the Nuclear Security Summit. Russia did not participate in the last summit in Washington, but at the same time made the statement that now is the time to move the center of activities in this field here to the IAEA. I interviewed Ambassador Voronkov ahead of the summit and I know the Russian perspective on this issue. In your opinion, why that was the case? Why did Russia choose not to participate in the last summit?

L.H.: I think the Russian statements speak for themselves. I’ll just point out that they were factually incorrect. The Russians have raised some concerns about some proposed procedural approaches in 2014. Those concerns were shared by other countries, and the procedures were adjusted.

For Russia to continue to highlight those procedural concerns where they had been resolved I thought was unfair and unnecessary. I had remained in close touch with Ambassador Grigory Berdennikov [Ambassador at Large, Russia’s representative on the IAEA Board of Governors — Editor’s note] even after Russia had indicated privately that they would not participate in the summit. I continued to engage him and let him know how the summit preparations were proceeding.

But once Russia came out in public and mischaracterized the summit and the status of Russia vis-à-vis the summit, I had no choice but remove Russia from visibility on the preparatory process. That having been said, all the outcomes of the summit are perfectly visible.

I continue to think that it was a missed opportunity for Russia. I think the leaders who were present at the summit found it an extremely useful conversation. Russian leaders know from the previous three summits that this is not a venue to pick on a particular country — no one is exposed or attacked in the course of the conversation. The leaders did have an excellent meeting.

And there has never been a debate about the central role of the IAEA to say, “Now is the time.” It has always been the time for the Agency to play the central coordinating role [on the issues of nuclear security]. That has been requested by the member states for years now — through the nuclear security resolution of the General Conference and many other consensus documents. We certainly agree that the IAEA has the central coordinating role. But it does not have the exclusive role.  

The UN has important components to play — including Resolution 1540 and the Convention on Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, which is a Russian-launched convention. [UN Resolution 1540 establishes legally binding measures on all UN member states to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction — Editor’s note] Interpol has an important role to play in the law enforcement relationship, which doesn’t happen in Vienna for legitimate reasons. The Global Partnership Against the Spread of Materials of Mass Destruction and the Global Initiative Against the Spread of Nuclear Terrorism also have important roles to play.

So, for the IAEA to update and make more substantive its current set of coordination meetings is something that member states have asked the Agency to do, and we certainly would welcome Russia’s support and involvement in improving that capability of the Agency.

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RD: What do you expect of the ministerial conference on physical protection of nuclear material in December of this year?

L.H.: We have high expectations for that conference. First of all, it’s an opportunity to broaden the conversation to 169 countries. We also see it as the logical keeper of this high-level engagement that the summits brought about. It also has its value by allowing each country to select which minister is appropriate to send from their own governance point of view.

The U.S. will send Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. For us, he is the perfect package because he has responsibility not only for large amounts of U.S. nuclear material and the security thereof, but his department also does the bulk of our international cooperation on nuclear security and he himself has a strong personal interest in this issue.

But other countries will send other ministers and we really would like to see a significant representation of ministers to maintain this high level visibility and engagement on nuclear security issue. We also hope that the ministerial conference will continue in the summit tradition of bringing forward deliverables, that the national statements are not simply the rote recitations of “we ratified this treaty and we implement these laws,” but rather to say: “Here are things we have just completed or things we are planning to do in tangible implementation of our nuclear security responsibilities.”

We also hope that the ministerial conference will be a chance for the Agency to highlight its new responsibilities with the entry into force of the CPPNM Amendment that asks a lot of the member states, but it also asks a lot of the Agency. [The CPPNM is the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material — Editors’ note] We have waited for a decade for this amendment to enter into force.

RD: And the IAEA General Conference in September – is there anything dramatic to expect there, or just the routine meeting?

L.H.: Well, you never know where the drama comes from at the General Conference. We are pleased that the Arab League has decided that it will not be introducing the Israeli Nuclear Capabilities resolution [which has repeatedly been a bone of contention at past General Conferences — Editor’s note]. We think that is a wise decision, and we look forward to investing our diplomatic time and energy into affirmative outcomes and perhaps we can find some new areas of joint work with the Middle East countries. So, absence of that drama will contribute to a smooth and more focused General Conference.

We certainly will be watching carefully the development of the resolutions, hoping for resolutions that can achieve consensus across the board. We had some unhelpful outcomes last year with some resolutions that came to votes — I think that’s not the best use of delegates’ time and I hope we can avoid that this time around.

RD: Your past experience has been much related to U.S.-Russia cooperation in disarmament, nuclear threat reduction and related fields. Now that the Nunn-Lugar program seems to be over, everything that had been started in the early 1990s is completed. What is the current status in the field? Has it just passed or is there some sort of follow up, something coming in its place?

L.H.: I am not going to accept your premise of Nunn-Lugar being over. [The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which sought to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction in the post-Soviet republics — Editor’s note] The problems that it was conceived to solve — yes, we have largely solved them.

To the degree that we have concerns about Russian compliance with arms control — it’s not because of the lack of funding. We have succeeded with the single nuclear successor state to the Soviet Union. We have addressed many of the concerns that we had at the time about nuclear material security, although it continues to be a rich area of cooperation that is not necessarily associated with inadequacy, but just with continued improvement.

And in that regard we are very sad that Russia had chosen to truncate the good work that we were doing there, that had matured significantly from being a desperation-based relationship to one of peers and respected colleagues, who were sharing information, ideas, techniques, technologies and best practice on a peer to peer basis. And we established a legal arrangement on that basis that, unfortunately, Russia has chosen not to implement.

That having been said, we are still finding ways to work together in third countries to address the challenge of nuclear material security — in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, some other countries where Russia had provided material or where Russia has technology and equipment that is suited to managing those concerns. There is more to do in that respect that I hope we can continue to work appropriately on it.

But if you take the capital letters off Cooperative Threat Reduction and treat them as three words and a concept, I think it is far from history, it’s our future, and it is embedded in a lot of things that we do. Certainly, the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons was a particularly timely and challenging example of how the U.S. and Russia worked together with 20+ other countries to cooperatively reduce the threat. And we see that in our ongoing work in Libya to address the chemical weapons issue there.

RD: Is there anything going on now in Libya?

L.H.: Yes. The full elimination of all of Libya’s declared materials was incomplete at the time of political upheaval. So, there has been a sort of starting and stopping effort based on the security situation in the country to complete their responsibilities to destroy precursors. They don’t have any more agents in Libya, but there are precursors to chemical weapons there, that require to be destroyed. That’s not where U.S. and Russia are working together, but that’s where the cooperative threat reduction concept is being applied.

You can also see it in the biological sphere, which obviously started with the U.S. and Russia in the late 1990s and matured to a certain degree before that was cut off. But the same model is at work with U.S. and other partners bilaterally and other countries have picked are doing it themselves. Denmark is doing work on biosafety and biosecurity in Africa in a way that looks very familiar to how U.S. and Russia had pioneered that in the late 1990s. The Nunn-Lugar insight has kind of found a way in, not only to U.S. nonproliferation policies, but also globally, and that’s all to the good.

RD: How do you assess the current stage in the implementation of the JCPOA? How is it going? What are the concerns?

L.H.: There are two critical data points — one is that the IAEA has assessed that Iran has fully implemented the agreement. I will let that assessment speak for itself — that’s what the international community has asked the Agency to do. Part of my mission is to make sure the Agency has the resources to do its job, and we are having good and constructive conversations with them about that.

And the U.S. has fully implemented our commitments. We have addressed the sanctions issues right upfront and we continue to do what we have committed to do under the deal. So, in that sense, the implementation is going as prescribed.