The long-running dispute over IAEA inspector designations stands out in the latest report on Iran. Iran rejects inspectors. The IAEA is not happy with it. But who is right and who is wrong? As so often, there are no easy answers.

Paragraphs 9 and 85 of the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (INFCIRC/153) details how inspectors are selected. In practice, the Agency suggests a roster of inspectors to the state. The inspected state does have the right to object to any of the suggested names. If it does so, the IAEA has to propose an alternative name. This procedure aims to minimize the risk that intelligence officers, or perhaps corporate spies, infiltrate the inspectorate with a view to gathering classified or sensitive data.

However, the state’s right to refuse inspectors is not unrestricted. If a state refuses designations repeatedly, and that refusal should “impede the inspections” carried out by the Agency, the Director-General has the choice to refer the matter to the Board for consideration and action. The text doesn’t spell out who should decide that a repeated refusal impedes inspections. An ordinary reading strongly suggests that it is the Secretariat itself that makes that determination. It cannot be the state, because that would make the entire paragraph meaningless (it would never admit that its behavior impedes inspections). It also cannot be the Board of Governors, since that would make the language on referral irrelevant.

The paragraph is likely to target behavior when the state is trying to obstruct the inspection process. It does not have a problem with the names on the list. Rather, it has a problem with the inspections themselves. In the present case, Iran is trying to use the mechanism to put pressure on the Secretariat to curb leaks of the Director-General’s reports to the media. While Iran’s irritation is understandable, its objections, as reported, have little to do with the inspectors themselves. After all, we’ve not seen a repeat of the Chris Charlier story.

The Director-General’s impatience is also clear. The latest report reveals that the IAEA met with Iran’s Ambassador to the Agency on 20 July 2010 to discuss this particular matter. According to the report, the IAEA held that Iran’s “repeated objection … hampers the inspection process and thereby detracts from the Agency’s capability to implement effective and efficient safeguards in Iran.” This language, forcefully put, closely resembles the wording of the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement. The Director-General does not clearly ask the Board to consider the matter at its meeting next week. So the report’s language is probably meant to be a shot across the bow.

However, even if the Board were to discuss the matter, there’s not much it can do. It could call on Iran, under paragraph 18 of the Agreement, to accept the Secretariat’s inspector designations “without delay.” Whether Iran, in such a case, complies with the Board’s request is another matter entirely.

I wouldn’t make a spot bet on it.