IAEA confined to 'piecemeal' updates from Iran, says Grossi

11 January 2021

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) cannot judge whether Iran will choose to become only the second country, after North Korea, ever to deny its inspectors access to nuclear sites, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said today. Grossi was speaking in an interview with Francois Murphy, chief correspondent of Reuters in Austria, where the IAEA is headquartered. The interview was held on the first day of the Reuters Next virtual summit that is taking place until 14 January.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi speaking today

Murphy noted that the IAEA had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for its efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes, before asking Grossi for an update on the situation the agency now faces with Iran. At the turn of the year, Tehran informed Grossi it planned to start 20% uranium enrichment, which is a purity level five times that which it agreed under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA).

The announcement followed the passing of a new law in December by the Majles, the Iranian parliament. This law requires the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) to produce at least 120 kg of 20% enriched uranium annually at the Fordow nuclear site. The law also stipulates that Iran will no longer be bound by the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol it had signed with the IAEA, meaning that access to its nuclear sites by international inspectors would cease.

Grossi said it was unclear whether the communication he had received from Tehran on a further increase to uranium enrichment was "an intention or an actual decision", but that several days later, "they indicated that they would proceed with this process".

An IAEA spokesperson told World Nuclear News last week that Grossi had informed IAEA Member States that on 4 January Iran had started feeding uranium already enriched up to 4.1% U-235 into six centrifuge cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant for further enrichment up to 20%. IAEA inspectors were present at the site to detach the agency’s seal from a cylinder with the feed material. The six cascades had been reconfigured as three sets of two interconnected cascades, comprising a total of 1044 IR-1 centrifuges.

Iran has been moving away from its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal since mid-2019, when the IAEA reported the country had been enriching UF6 above the 3.67% U-235 limit set by the JCPoA. In January 2020, Tehran said it would no longer observe any operational limitations on its nuclear industry, whether concerning the capacity and level of uranium enrichment, the volume of stockpiled uranium, or research and development. The E3 - France, Germany and the UK - then triggered the JCPoA's dispute resolution mechanism. The following June, the IAEA adopted a resolution calling on Iran to cooperate fully in implementing its NPT Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol. In August, Grossi went to Tehran, following the US Administration's request to the UN Security Council to initiate the 'snapback' mechanism of the Iran nuclear deal. This mechanism allows a party to the agreement to seek the re-imposition against Iran of the multilateral sanctions lifted in 2015 in accordance with resolution 2231. The USA withdrew from the JCPoA in May 2018 and re-imposed economic sanctions on Iran.

"We are in a new reality," Grossi said of the move towards 20% purity because it is far from the 3.67% limit.

"We know that this was a result of the sort of tit-for-tat logic that came into play when the United States announced its withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, but the difference before was not as big and was simply to show they were above the agreed limitation. Now, 20% is a different thing. It's a much higher degree that requires important changes in the operation, and of course it attracts a lot more attention internationally because of the correlation that exists between the enrichment of uranium and the ability to get to levels that are potentially of military use," he said.

Asked how soon Iran would reach its 20% target, Grossi said: "I could not tell you a figure now, not because it's a secret, but because they have just started. But if we were to project the estimated volumes of production against the capacity of the machines there, then we are talking about 10 kilograms or a little bit more per month."

The move to 20% is not the only serious change to Tehran's position regarding the JCPoA, he said, because the target is now enshrined in Iranian law. The IAEA "can't ascertain or speculate on" whether that law will be implemented in full or only partially.

"I must take it seriously because it's a law and the government seems to be intent on complying with it," he said. "This is a new situation insofar as we've never been confronted with [such] a comprehensive law and the government informs us piecemeal."

The IAEA is however in "constant dialogue" with the AEOI and Iran's foreign ministry and this has so far been "constructive", he said. That will "hopefully" continue to be the case, but there is the context of "bigger and wider political developments".

"If you ask me, have we been informed of an impending suspension of our inspectors' activities? No, but these provisions are there in the law. Do I take it seriously? I do and I am concerned."

Asked whether there is time for a solution to be found before Iran reaches the 20% target, or before the 21 February deadline set in law, Grossi said: "There's always a window for talks. I'm a diplomat and I believe very sincerely and very honestly in this. We must find a way. We are the inspectors, we are the ones monitoring and policing agreements that are made by politicians. We all know there have been statements on almost every side of the agreement, and we are expecting these people to sit round the table. And we are going to contribute to that, not as a party, but as the technical supervisor."

He added: "It's obvious that the situation on the ground has changed, is changing and is going to change even more. So there will have to be some clear understanding about how the initial terms of the JCPoA (if it is so decided by the political parties to that) are going to be re-complied with … I wouldn't like to receive a communication saying that, because of a deadline on 21 February, the presence of my inspectors in Iran is going to be reduced. That would be bad news, certainly."

Stressing the non-political role of the IAEA, Grossi said it was not his place to advise the heads of state of the signatories to the JCPoA, including the new US administration, on how the nuclear deal could be restarted. "It's clear that we don't have many months ahead of us. We have weeks," he said, adding that reaching a solution is "invaluable for anyone with a stake in international peace and security".

Asked about his successful visit to Tehran in August last year, when he was able to agree dates on subsequent visits for IAEA inspectors, he said: "The situation at that time was not easy because they didn’t want us to have access to a number of places. And then when we explained the technical way in which we would be doing that, I think we could reassure them about the whole process. It is always possible when there is clarity and there is goodwill on every side. My opinion now is we are confronted with a difficult situation because quite clearly from August to now, in terms of any improvement in complying with the JCPoA, there has been a further erosion, a degradation, of the situation, which means there will be a lot of work politically. I wouldn’t get into that. I have my own opinions but it's not for me [to say]. They have to decide what they are going to do. What we have to be very clear on is the technical situation and the ways to inspect, to ensure there is predictability for all."

The success of his talks last August was not his alone, he stressed.

"I was not acting like a lone ranger on a white horse, as flattering that would be for my ego. I was the embodiment of the will of the agency and its Member States that were supporting the director general. Everyone believed it was important that access to the IAEA should never be [removed] and I think this message is valid today."

He added: "Access for IAEA inspectors and cooperation with the IAEA in a wider sense is indispensable. Without that - and I'm talking not only about Iran, but any country - it's very difficult to be on good terms within the international community. If you think about the countries that do not allow the presence of the IAEA, you will find only one, which has lots of problems. North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors. We are an international organisation, so we are an easy target. Kick us out, but we are the embodiment of international law."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News