The UN nuclear agency says its top inspector Olli Heinonen, head of investigations into Iran and Syria, will leave his position for personal reasons after nearly 30 years at the Vienna-based organisation.
Heinonen, 63, is head of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) safeguards department which verifies that countries’ nuclear programmes are not being diverted for military use. He is the agency’s leading Iran expert, Reuters says of the announcement made today.
A no-nonsense Finn, Heinonen is probably best known for giving a presentation to diplomats on Iran in February 2008 which indicated links between projects to process uranium, test explosives and modify a missile cone in a way suitable for a nuclear warhead.
“He has been indefatigable in his pursuit of the truth behind Iran’s nuclear programme. He is one of the agency’s most experienced, knowledgeable inspectors,” said Mark Fitzpatrick at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Of course, he’s only part of a team of many good inspectors and the agency’s work in Iran will not grind to a halt.”
Since Heinonen, an expert in the chemistry of radioactive materials, joined the agency in 1983, a secret nuclear programme was uncovered in Iran, North Korea left the Non-Proliferation Treaty and tested two nuclear devices, Israel bombed an alleged atomic site in Syria and Libya admitted to a covert atomic bomb programme and scrapped it.
The IAEA said his position should be filled soon.
Diplomats said new IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano, a Japanese non-proliferation veteran who took up his position last December, had said in private there would be changes in the agency’s top staff. Heinonen, a low-key technical expert, has been head of safeguards since 2005 and was widely seen as the trusted right-hand man of Amano’s predecessor Mohamed ElBaradei.
“With my departure, I know that I leave behind a fine team of department colleagues who will continue to provide the strong support to … Mr Amano as well as to my successor,” Heinonen wrote in a message to colleagues seen by Reuters.
His department’s five-year investigation into Western intelligence on Iran helped harden IAEA concerns that the Islamic Republic might have conducted work to develop a nuclear-armed missile and could be doing so now. These suspicions surfaced most strongly in Amano’s first report on Iran in February. Tehran says the intelligence is forged and insists its atomic work is solely for peaceful purposes such as generating electricity.