Tuesday, August 11, 2009

From The Lion and the Sun

Daniel Conte is in Vienna following up leads on the disappearance of a plutonium pit from a Russian Weapons Lab. One of the people he interviews is at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Demitri Protopopov is the director of the division responsible for WMD inspections in the Middle East.

Protopopov had a face like a basset hound, full of folds and furrows, sad, brown eyes, with several layers of bags under them. He was able to see the humor in some of the shenanigans that went on around the Agency and he got a twinkle in his eye when discussing the strategy of how to get something through the bureaucracy. He shuffled around his office in his stocking feet, smoked, and drank his tea after heaping four teaspoons of sugar in it. He had crayon drawings tacked to the wall behind his desk. One showed three stick figure children with a ball, an animal of some kind, a tree on one side of the drawing, and a big mushroom cloud on the other side.

Conte reflected on the fact that Westerners assigned to the IAEA, Americans especially, tended to be frustrated by the dance that’s required before any real business was possible. Generally, the first meeting with someone was all about creating “rapport.” The weather was discussed, of course, your trip over, where you’re staying, the sad state of the IAEA cafeteria, and so on. You shook hands and on the way out said, “Oh by the way, I would like to come back and discuss…” whatever it was you were there to discuss in the first place. An appointment was made. You said your goodbyes, and the next stop was lunch.

Protopopov was not one to violate protocol, but Conte was. “Mr. Protopopov…” Every gentleman at the Agency was referred to in formal settings as ‘mister,’ even if they were a director, a doctor, or a mail messenger. “I understand that you are negotiating a new safeguards agreement with Iranian nuclear authorities?”

Protopopov smiled, rearranged the penholder on his desk, and said, “Of course. The Agency has a safeguards agreement with Iran. It was brokered by AEOI, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Developments during the recent war requires that it be modified.”

Protopopov and Conte sat in leather chairs arranged around a beaten copper coffee table of the sort one finds in the bazaar in Esfahan or the exotic furniture department at a New York department store. Conte sat forward, hands on knees. “Is Iran making a complete declaration, or are you going with what they’ve provided in the past?”

Protopopov reached for another biscuit. Holding it a few inches from his mouth, he looked at Conte and said, “Of course we expect a full declaration.” He popped the biscuit in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully.

“Mr. Protopopov,” Conte took a sip of tea while Protopopov was chewing. “Are you concerned that perhaps Iran has nuclear facilities that are not on the Agency’s list of sites?”

“Well, Mr. Conte, that is a matter for our Deputy Director General to address during his visit with Vice President Habibi next week in Tehran.”

“I see. And pending the outcome, when do you expect Agency inspections to resume in Iran?”

“A team has already been to Tehran to discuss the matter with the AEOI. These things cannot be rushed, Mr. Conte. You must understand that sovereign nations take their sovereignty seriously.” Protopopov fairly beamed at Conte, thinking that he had surely scored diplomatic points with this utterly obvious observation.

“I’m just wondering, Mr. Protopopov, if you’re at all concerned that Iran may be following in the footsteps of Iraq and trying to pull the wool over the Agency’s eyes?”

“I see.” Protopopov studied Conte for a few seconds before going on. “As I recall, you were an advisor to our Iraq Action Team and spent some time in Iraq.”

Conte just nodded and waited for Protopopov to continue.

“We were amused by that exercise, Mr. Conte.”

Conte cocked his head slightly, “How so?”

“Well, everyone knew that your people were sending information back to the US CIA, but at least it was somewhat subtle. These days the Americans’ ‘research’ is so much more obvious. It reminds me of an old joke we used to tell in the Former Soviet Union. It seems that a notice was posted on the swim club bulletin board informing the members that a certain member, Comrade K we shall call him, was being dropped from the club. A friend of Comrade K approached the club chairman and inquired as to why this was so. The chairman said that Comrade K had peed in the swimming pool. But comrade chairman, said the inquiring member, we both know that members often pee in the pool. Yes, said the chairman, but not from the diving board!”

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