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‘We Are on a Ventilator’: IAEA Chief Laments Reduced Access to Iran’s Nuclear Sites

Rafael Grossi, head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, briefing media on Iran, June 7, 2021. In an interview with him recently, Grossi said that what motivates him in dragged-out negotiations is the sense that “by solving controversial questions we are improving the overall situation.” DEAN CALMA/IAEA

VIENNA — In an interview here with Rafael Grossi, the 60-year-old director-general of the United Nations nuclear watchdog — the International Atomic Energy Agency — he revealed that he has not had a reply yet from Iran on a possible extension of the agency’s current inspections agreement of the country’s nuclear facilities, which runs out on June 24.

Grossi also pointed out that the agreement should not be seen as a long-term solution to the monitoring and verification of Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran has recently been enriching uranium to 60 percent, which is close to weapons grade, or 90 percent. Iran continues to insist that its nuclear program is peaceful. Additionally, he urged Iran to once and for all “clear up” questions about uranium traces found at several locations in the country.

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In the 45-minute interview on June 18 with Grossi in his office at the UN in Vienna, PassBlue asked him a range of questions — including why Grossi, an Argentine from Buenos Aires, became a diplomat specializing in nuclear nonproliferation; why few women enter the field; and, finally, about the fast-evolving status of Iran’s nuclear program and the negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which are also being done in Vienna.

As head of the IAEA since December 2019, Grossi’s public profile may be discreet but his role in global nonproliferation is crucial, requiring a keen understanding of the people he is negotiating with on hypersensitive matters.

He was formerly the Argentine ambassador to Austria and International Organizations, based here since 2010. He graduated from the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina with a B.A. in political science and from the University of Geneva and the Graduate Institute of International Studies with a M.A. and Ph.D. in international relations, history and international politics. He is married and has eight children. — STEPHANIE LIECHTENSTEIN 

The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

I wanted to ask you about your personal motivations for choosing a career in nuclear diplomacy. You entered the Argentine diplomatic service in 1985 and were immediately assigned to the foreign ministry’s new Nuclear Affairs and Disarmament Department. What made you choose this particular field?

Grossi: It all started at the beginning of my career. I was coming out of the diplomatic school and Argentina was coming out of a dictatorship. The civilian government was trying to get hold of the nuclear program, including the nuclear foreign policy and the external relations of the country. At the time, Argentina was enriching uranium and that was a shock to the new government. Argentina had also not signed the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons [NPT], just like Brazil and China.

Was there a defining moment in your new job in Argentina?

Grossi: Completely. I went through a six-months nuclear training program and visited Argentina’s nuclear installations, including the-then secret installations in Patagonia. That really changed my life.

The topic of nuclear nonproliferation is extremely sensitive as well as very technical. You have over 35 years of experience in this field. How do you manage to create trust with your interlocutors?

Grossi: Trust is fundamental. At the end of the day, you have to create relationships so that you can talk to people, hear them out and understand what is driving them. The fact that I come from where I come from has always helped me deal with countries such as Iran, Libya or Iraq, that have particularities. I understand concerns such as national pride or cultural issues. This might sometimes be more difficult to understand or to grasp for a European or a North American, particularly things that might not appear to be at first sight the rational first choice.

Furthermore, I don’t have any other agenda than the nonproliferation agenda. I always like to lay things out clearly before my interlocutor and find out where we can work together. In this business, you have to be a credible figure. This is not always easy, because there are often deep-rooted preconceptions and prejudgements.

How do you manage to keep yourself motivated, particularly as some of these negotiations drag on for a really long time without concrete results?

Grossi: What keeps me going is the idea that I am doing something that is worthwhile. Sometimes people ask me how it is possible that our issues with Iran have been dragging on for so many years. My answer to them is: Think about what the alternative would be in the region, and tell me what is better. It’s true that it can be draining sometimes, but I always find inspiration in the idea that by solving these things, we are really improving the overall situation.

How do you recharge your batteries? You always seem so energetic.

Grossi: Discipline is extremely important. I take good care of myself. I exercise every day and I enjoy reading. I also have a big family and I try to spend some time with my children. But what worries me sometimes is the lack of time I have. But I try to reserve space for myself and for my family.

One issue that you have been focusing on since taking office in December 2019 is the role of women in nuclear science and disarmament. To me, it is astonishing that there are still so few women in this field. I know that the IAEA has launched the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Program. What else have you done?

Grossi: Achieving gender equality is one of the challenges of our times, and I think you cannot isolate the IAEA from the issue that we face as a global society. But because of the nature of the topics we deal with at the IAEA, the bias and clichés are even more present. Some people incorrectly assume that this nuclear and scientific field is not for women. This attitude really is revolting. I am now in a position of responsibility, and I can change the situation.

What has the IAEA specifically done to help women enter the nuclear field?

Grossi: One of the things that I can do is appoint more women. When I assumed my post as director-general in December 2019, around 27 to 28 percent of the IAEA’s staff were female. Now, 1.5 years later, we are already at 35 percent. I am moving the needle, but believe me, it is incredibly difficult because there is a huge pushback. Internal processes have to be changed, such as administrative manuals. In addition, one of the most important aspects is better training for managers, so that they can learn how to recruit better and defeat bias.

Does the IAEA have women nuclear inspectors?

Grossi: Yes, we do. I am appointing more and more of them. Women make great inspectors, they are so meticulous and sharp. I am one of those people who feel that gender parity is parity, but we are different, and this is so fantastic. Having women inspectors is amazingly advantageous for the agency. In this regard, it’s crucial to do more outreach. For example, I am working with Women in Nuclear Global, an organization which supports and encourages women working in nuclear sciences throughout the world. They and other women in science associations help us spread the word.

You have also mentioned the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Program that was launched in March 2020. This is about us making a contribution to widen and enlarge the pool of people working in this area of nuclear science, not as potential future staff members but simply for young women to know that there can be support in this field.

In the first year of the program, we sponsored 100 women, and this year we have another 100 women. I would argue that in the gender sphere, there is a lot of hot air and not enough concrete action. This irritates me, and therefore I am trying to bring about concrete change.

I’d like to turn to the most obvious topic: Iran. There is the looming deadline of June 24, when the IAEA’s temporary inspections agreement with Iran on its nuclear facilities expires. You negotiated this agreement as a temporary solution after the country began implementing a law passed by its parliament in December 2020. The law requires Iran, among other things, to cease the application of the so-called Additional Protocol, which provides for strict inspections of its nuclear program. Your temporary pact has helped to maintain some access for your inspectors in Iran, even if it’s not at the same level as before the new law was passed. Do you expect the agreement will be extended on time?

Grossi: I am still expecting Iran to reply to me. I am reaching out to Iran again, and I tell them that we need to sit down, virtually or physically, and talk. As I said at my last press conference, it is becoming increasingly difficult to extend or keep this arrangement, which is temporary. Are we going to continue the temporary agreement or not? Is June 24 the end of it? Because if it is, there are a number of things we need to do, starting with the erasure of the information [recorded on the cameras inside Iran’s nuclear plants]. This must be done in an appropriate way with our presence, as it is our equipment.

You don’t want the information recorded on the camers inside Iran’s nuclear plants to be erased?

Grossi: Of course not. But I also don’t want to continue in this way forever.

From your last report to the IAEA board of governors, I realized that even with the temporary agreement in place, you are already limited in what your inspectors can see.

Grossi: It is very limited. And this is why in my last report I included a table to show the things our inspectors are not seeing. This needs to be understood by the general public. So what I am trying to say is that right now, we should not be limited further, but at the same time this temporary agreement is not a sustainable solution. This agreement cannot be seen as a replacement for a correct verification approach to a nuclear program of the dimension of Iran. We are on a ventilator.

I heard that the technical annex of the temporary agreement, which specifies the details of the inspections that you can carry out, was not extended last time. Is this correct?

Grossi: I would say that the technical annex is still being applied. Our Iranian counterparts did not want to get into the formalities of an extension as such for political considerations.

Presidential elections were held in Iran today [June 18], which will be followed by a transition period and a new leadership taking office in August. Do you expect your interactions with Iran to change?  

Grossi: Iran is a sovereign nation, but from my perspective I cannot see any advantage for them to sever ties with the IAEA or pursue a policy of confrontation with the IAEA. This will only create problems for Iran at every level, and it is not in their interest. I am open to working with the next president of Iran and to hear Iran’s views. I want to sit down with the new leadership and build trust and a relationship as soon as we can. Because we are in this for the long haul.

I also wanted to ask you about the so-called safeguards probe in Iran. After many months, you still have no answer from Iran on the presence of nuclear particles at several locations in the country that your inspectors have also visited. You said in your last report to the IAEA board of governors that you were “deeply concerned” about the presence of those particles and the lack of information from Iran. Please explain why these traces of nuclear material are of concern?  

Grossi: Some say that this is an obsession as well as a minor, old thing. If this is the case and if there is nothing behind it, please let us look at it and clarify it. Because how can you have a JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] pillar that is working, based on mutual confidence, when you can feel that there are other things ongoing that you are not aware of? But my approach is practical. Let’s clear it up [hits the armchair with his hand]! If there is nothing behind it, there is no problem, and Iran’s confidence and trust will only increase.

What will happen if there is no reply from Iran on this probe by September, when the IAEA board of governors meets again?

Grossi: I hope that in the time between now and then we will make real progress. If this is not the case, my reports to the board of governors are very transparent, and I will explain this very clearly. But I hope we will not be in that situation.

Is there still a plan to have a round of discussions on this issue with Iran, starting on June 21?

Grossi: I am a bit puzzled, because Iran wanted to meet around June 21. But then Iran never came back. They invited us to a party, but apparently, there is no party. Maybe they are reminded now that they offered a venue and some conversation. But engaging alone is not enough. One has to take this process seriously.

American and Iranian officials have been joined by representatives from the remaining parties to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — here in Vienna to revive the deal after the United States withdrew from it in 2018. Talks have been dragging on since the beginning of April. What is your role in the talks and what do you need the deal to look like so the IAEA can fulfill its role as monitor and inspector?

Grossi: We are not party to the negotiations. We try to support the process by consulting with the negotiators. We help them to see how the things that they negotiate fare in terms of a reality check and verifiability.

We need a system that will allow us to have all the visibility of Iran’s nuclear program. This is going to be a complex operation, because for the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, there was a different situation when it comes to Iran’s nuclear capabilities. A lot has changed in the past years in this regard. My right and obligation is to tell them what I need as an inspector, to make sure that the ambitious agreement is based on solid information. But the politics of the agreement are decided on at the Grand Hotel in Vienna.

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Finally, how much of Iran’s nuclear program suffered as a result of the explosion at the Natanz nuclear plant, one of Iran’s main nuclear installations, on April 11? Iran publicly blamed Israel for the incident, and it is not entirely clear how much has been destroyed at the plant. Have you seen an impact?

Grossi: Yes, there has been an impact. My last report in a way reflects this. The assessment of the damage is, of course, a matter for the Iranian security services. But one metric that you can look at is the pace of increase in the production volumes. It has been a serious event, and this shows in the activity there. But we also see lots of work in terms of replacement of centrifuges [machines to enrich uranium], so the activity has continued.

[Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium increased by an estimated 273 kilograms between Feb. 16 and May 22, which is just over half the 525 kilogram stockpile increase from the previous quarter.]

Stephanie Liechtenstein is a freelance journalist based in Vienna, covering diplomacy and international organizations for more than 15 years. Her articles have appeared in Foreign Policy, the EU Observer, The Washington Post and Austrian daily newspapers such as Die Presse and Wiener Zeitung. http://www.stephanieliechtenstein.com

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