The Queen of Safeguards

By Laura Rockwood

April 17, 2023

IMAGE: Laura Rockwood, center left, and Herman Neckaerts of the IAEA and Iran’s IAEA ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh attend a news conference in Vienna. Photo by Herwig Prammer for Reuters.


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Laura Rockwood worked as a lawyer at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for 28 years. She reflects on negotiating respectfully with people from different cultures, following different paths throughout the course of one’s career, and lessons learned during the lead-up to the Iraq War.



Interviewed by Ashley Christ.

LAURA ROCKWOOD: So there I am, sitting there not knowing anything about safeguards, trying to learn and going home every night thinking, “Oh my God, I think I’m gonna start World War III.”

So, greetings. I’m Laura Rockwood. I was formerly the senior lawyer for the IAEA for all things related to safeguards and non-proliferation. I worked there for 28 years and I’m a lawyer by training and by profession.

Well, it certainly wasn’t a career path I had started out wanting to do. I knew when I became a lawyer, I wanted to live and work in Europe and I wanted to do public international law. So I started out at the IAEA knowing nothing about safeguards. And I learned not just about safeguards over my career, but profound lessons about how one can effectively interact with people from different cultures, to negotiate with adversaries, to negotiate with respect, how to communicate effectively. If you want to convince somebody of your position, how do you do that?

Well, it’s really interesting. When I very first moved to Vienna I myself had not met any Iranians either. And one of the first events I attended there was the Iranian ambassador there. And as he got up to be introduced I held out my hand to shake his hand, and he wouldn’t do it, and he wouldn’t look me in the eye. Now mind you, this was 1985, so it wasn’t so very long after the revolution in Iran, but I found myself being quite put out by this. But interestingly enough, within five years we had established a professional relationship.

In fact, in the 1990 NPT Review conference, which was in Geneva, I was on the secretariat staff of the the NPT Review Conference. And this ambassador wanted to table a proposal for consideration by the safeguards committee and he didn’t know quite how to do it. So he approached me as the secretary to the committee and I was able to advise him. He was able to table his proposal, and in fact it was accepted and it’s been used in the NPT review conferences ever since then. But the reason I tell this story is what happened afterwards.

When main committee two was finished and I was packing up my papers, he approached me as I was sitting at the podium and with his eyes downcast he said to me, “I want to thank you very much. You’ve been very professional, and I really appreciate it.” He still didn’t shake my hand or look me in the eye, but to get that kind of acknowledgement from someone who comes from such a different culture was felt really good to me, felt really good to me.

A very interesting experience, again with a an Iranian ambassador. Different person, different time. This was 15 years later, 2003, 2004. Iran, if you may remember, had decided to sign an additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement. And like pretty much every other country that concluded an additional protocol, they needed training.

So it was decided by the head of the Office of Legal Affairs to send my Australian colleague, who happened to be a man, because the director thought for sure they aren’t gonna want to deal with an American, and they certainly won’t negotiate or listen to a woman. So I gave my presentation to my colleague. He went to Tehran and gave the presentation. He’s a bright lawyer, no reason to think he wasn’t able to give it effectively. After that, during the general conference, this ambassador, the Iranian ambassador came up to me and said, “Would you mind, would you be willing to come to Tehran and give us some training on the additional protocol?” And I said, “Well, ambassador, first thing, you really need to talk to the Director General about this but not me, but as for me, and if you’re asking me personally, you need to know that my colleague gave you my presentation. So I don’t know whether I would be able to add anything.”

And his response was, “Well, Miss Laura, everyone knows that if you want to know anything about the additional protocol, they have to talk to you.” Imagine, imagine.

I think it’s important to acquire your expertise, be respectful, understand that in some environments, stepping back a little bit is appropriate. And how you step up—you have to judge in any given environment. But you know, try not to get ahead of yourself especially as a younger person. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t—if you are tasked with doing something, you should definitely do that. But understand that the people on the other side of the table—try to understand where the people on the other side of the table are coming from.

If I could go back in a time machine and tell Laura Rockwood something, I would go back to my first two or three months at the IAEA. At the time, I knew nothing about the IAEA safeguards. And historically there had always been two lawyers working on safeguards. Well, right after I arrived at the IAEA in August of 1985, my colleague who did safeguards as well, retired.

So there I am sitting there not knowing anything about safeguards, trying to learn and going home every night thinking, “Oh my God, I think I’m gonna start World War III.” So what I would tell that Laura, that young Laura who didn’t know anything about safeguards, is don’t worry. There’s no way any given individual in this institution has that kind of power to impact things. So don’t worry about it.

And that’s one of the things about international institutions that can be frustrating, because they move slowly. But on the upside is, if you build a good organization that has checks and balances, it isn’t possible for a brand new lawyer to start World War III. So that’s what I would’ve told the young Laura.

It’s important to understand that over the 28 years that I was with the IAEA, safeguards changed dramatically. And what we had to do was not only working with the staff within the Department of Safeguards, but also member states. And they had to understand—we had to try to explain to them why it was important to strengthen safeguards. Now, most of that initiative came from the member states to the secretariat. So they had actually asked us to strengthen safeguards.

But as time went on and people left their ministries of foreign affairs, you had a loss of knowledge. And so 20 years later, 25 years later, you see some of the battles that came up in the early 1990s about the agency’s authority being re-argued. And part of the problem is because there’s been a loss of knowledge. So we had to reteach, and retrain, and explain how, yes, those questions are legitimate questions and here are the answers to them.

So the story about Iraq in 1998… We had—the IAEA had to pull its inspectors out, because there was going to be a bombing. So we pulled our inspectors out, and Iraq didn’t agree to let them back in until four years later, 2002, end of 2002. So we sent our inspectors back in.

We really investigated whether there had been a resumption of its nuclear weapons program. And we were in the process of coming to the conclusion that we’d seen no resumption of the nuclear weapons program. And we had developed a really good working relationship with the Iraqis.

And I remember the last meeting with the Iraqis when Mohamed ElBaradei was the head of the IAEA, Hans Blix the head of UNMOVIC and Hans Blix said to the counterpart, “Help us help you. We can perhaps avoid this, the drumbeats of war.”

And I’ll never forget the Iraqi ambassador sitting across from us saying, “You make a mistake. There’s nothing that’s going to stop this.”

So we drafted our report to the Security Council having ascertained that the Niger documents were fakes and that the aluminum tubes, the other pillar of the argument about why Iraq was continuing with this nuclear weapons program. We wrote a report to the Security Council saying neither of those things are true. And on the basis of our inspection, we believe we are about to draw the final conclusion that there’s been no resumption of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.

And the reason I feel personally responsible for that is because in that report to the Security Council, instead of referring to those Niger documents as “forgeries”, I and some of my colleagues pushed for using the word “not authentic”, because there was a reason for it, because emotions were so high. And the idea was to convince the Security Council not to look like we were emotionally out of control or something like that. So we would do it in a very professional way.

And to this day, I regret that.

Do I think that’s why the United States invaded Iraq? Certainly not. But the day the invasion started was a really bad day. And now we see the fruits of that.

So what advice would I give to somebody who’s just starting out in this business? First of all, get to know as many people as you can. Collect every single business card you can. Make a note of how you met them and if the person said, “Stay in touch,” because if they did, then stay in touch.

But, just understand that the best way to get somewhere is not necessarily I mean, professionally, isn’t always the straight way. You might take a side road here and come back here or you might end up doing something completely different, which in both instances in my case.

So it’s a good idea to have somewhere in the back of your mind where you want to be in five years and ten years, but also enough flexibility that if it looks as though your path isn’t heading that way, don’t be so rigid that you can’t do that. Because you might find a new path or it may just be a different pathway to get to where you ultimately wanted to do.

I ultimately ended up working and living in Europe in public international law, and it just worked. But it wasn’t anything that I had this specific idea that I want to go here, and do this, and the next step and next step. That works too. But don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work that way.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Stanley Center for Peace and Security or any other agency, institution, or partner.



Laura Rockwood
Former Section Head, Non-Proliferation and Policy Making, International Atomic Energy Agency

Laura Rockwood has over 35 years of experience in non-proliferation and international safeguards and has published extensively on safeguards and non-proliferation.


Ms. Rockwood retired from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in November 2013 as the Section Head for Non-Proliferation and Policy in the Office of Legal Affairs after 28 years of service. During her employment with the IAEA, she was the senior legal advisor on all aspects of the negotiation, interpretation and implementation of IAEA safeguards, and was the principal author of the document that became the Model Additional Protocol. She participated in high-level negotiations on Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and in the IAEA/US/Russian Federation negotiations on the Trilateral Initiative and the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement.


Laura Rockwood re-joined the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP) in August 2022 as a Non-Resident Senior Fellow. Prior to her current position at the VCDNP, Ms. Rockwood served as the Executive Director of Open Nuclear Network, a programme of One Earth Future, as well as the VCDNP’s Executive Director between 2015 and 2019.

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