The IAEA is often referred to in shorthand as the “UN nuclear watchdog,” but its profile is not exactly commensurate with the financial resources at its disposal. Like many UN agencies, the IAEA funds its operations through a combination of assessed and voluntary contributions from member states. Member states are assessed dues based on a scale pegged to each country’s gross national income. This funds what is known as the “regular budget,” which pays for things like weapons inspectors, safeguards, and administrative costs. The United States is the largest contributor to the IAEA, funding about 25 percent of the regular budget. Japan comes in second, at about 10 percent. The poorest member states generally pay less than 1 percent each. (On top of the regular budget is a $90-million Technical Cooperation Fund that is supported through voluntary contributions and mostly pays for development activities, including using nuclear technology to improve agricultural outcomes and supporting radiation therapy and other medical programs that rely on nuclear physics in the developing world.)
Last year, the IAEA’s regular budget was just over $350 million. That’s less than the budget of the San Diego police department. Iran is roughly 1,700 times larger than San Diego by territory—and about twice the size of Texas. Of course, the IAEA’s budget funds not just inspections in Iran, but activities around the world.
The nuclear-inspection regime in Iran is going to be expensive, among numerous other logistical, technical, and political challenges. In a press conference on Tuesday, following the signing of the final accord, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano estimated that the Iran portfolio has cost his agency $1 million per month since November 2013, when Iran initially allowed limited inspection of certain sites as a condition to launch diplomatic talks. In the same press conference, Amano said it would take some time to budget the costs related to maintaining a pool of some 150 inspectors to deploy to Iran and monitor Iranian nuclear activities from afar.
The problem with all this is that IAEA member states have pressured the agency to rein in spending in recent years. A policy of “zero-real growth” imposed by the IAEA’s 35-member state Board of Governors has been in place for several budget cycles. In its 2015 budget report, the agency described a host of activities that it has undertaken to cut expenditures, even as the responsibilities placed on it by countries and international organizations have increased. These included, among other things, introducing a “paper smart” policy and optimizing “the use of technical and office supplies.”
No one should begrudge an office for being more judicious about using the copy machine. But the fact that the IAEA is touting cutting down on office supplies as a way to reduce spending suggests that the agency is operating under intense budgetary pressures.