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Of Broken Seals and Broken Promises: Attributing Intention at the IAEA

By Anna Weichselbraun

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Cite As:
Weichselbraun, Anna. 2019. “Of Broken Seals and Broken Promises: Attributing Intention at the IAEA”. Cultural Anthropology 34 (4), 503–528. https://doi.org/10.14506/ca34.4.02.

Abstract

In the world of global politics, talk is cheap. States sign negotiated agreements, but a treaty without an enforcement mechanism is considered weak, because states are not expected to adhere to commitments whose materiality is merely that of ink and paper. To verify the terms of state commitments to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force in 1970, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear safeguards inspectors place tamper-evident seals in nuclear facilities. While seals appear to work simply as a binary signal, their meanings are multivalent. This article draws on fieldwork at the IAEA, and on broken seals in Iran between 2004 and 2006 that escalated into an international crisis, to examine the relationship between the material properties of the seal and its signifying potentialities. Bringing the perspective of semiotic ontology to the question of materiality, this essay argues that seals constitute a semiotic infrastructure of nuclear governance that materializes international law.

Keywords

seals; materiality; meaning; knowledge; intention; agency