The director of the Atomic Energy Agency: “The Iranian nuclear program is advancing at a gallop and we have very little visibility” | International


Among the many turbulences convulsing the contemporary world, atomic issues play a leading role, with many relevant fringes. On the one hand, the concern about the development of the Iranian nuclear program and the associated proliferation risks, with the consequent tense negotiation to reactivate the pact sealed in 2015 by the Barack Obama Administration and knocked down in 2018 by the Donald Trump Administration. Then, concern about the fate of Ukraine’s nuclear plants in the midst of a war, not to mention the thinly veiled Russian threats to resort to atomic weapons. In the background, the pessimism with which the review conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is scheduled to begin on August 1 in New York, is faced, with a panorama of great international polarization and with nuclear powers vigorously modernizing their arsenals.

Rafael Mariano Grossi (Buenos Aires, 1961), director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since 2019, offers his point of view on these issues, in an interview granted this Wednesday in Madrid. In it, he conveys a strong sense of urgency regarding the need to restore surveillance mechanisms over Iran’s atomic activities. “The Iranian nuclear program is advancing at a gallop and we have very little visibility,” Grossi warns.

Ask. Iran has been exceeding several thresholds in recent years and is already enriching uranium to 60%, a level close to military use. How close has it come to being able to dispose of the atomic material needed to arm a nuclear warhead if it wanted to in the four years that have passed since the Trump Administration withdrew from the pact?

Response. There was a legal framework that implied for Iran a series of voluntary restrictions that were part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [nombre oficial del pacto]. Those are set aside from the moment in which the Trump Administration decides to unilaterally abandon the agreement. From that moment on, Iran gradually and sequentially abandons the different commitments it had. Today, what we have is a nuclear program that has grown enormously, far beyond what it was in 2015. It is growth that is not only quantitative, but qualitative, also with the levels of enrichment that you point out. This does not imply that Iran is making a nuclear weapon, but no country that does not have warlike developments enriches at that level, at 60%. Therefore, we are in a very complicated situation, because Iran not only advances in a decisive and accelerated manner, but concomitantly with it reduces the visibility of the IAEA in all these areas. And this is what, in my opinion, constitutes a delicate situation, in addition to other issues related to aspects of the nuclear program that have not yet been clarified.

P. Regarding unexplained situations. The IAEA has discovered that there was undeclared nuclear activity in at least three places and considers that it has not received satisfactory explanations in this regard. What do you think was being done in those places?

R. This is what I am trying, so far unsuccessfully, to elucidate. In those three places we had information that there could have been some type of activity. We ask to visit them. That was a long and laborious process. Finally, we made it. Our inspectors were there, they took samples, the results indicated that there had been nuclear material. What happened there? If there was material there, where is it now? Our technical assessment is that the explanations provided by Iran so far have been insufficient and in some cases technically not credible. So that’s what I told the board of governors [del organismo].

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P. Precisely within the framework of this issue, Iran has announced that it was disconnecting 27 surveillance cameras – there are another 40 left -, which is added to having withdrawn in February 2021 from the verification mechanisms of the nuclear pact. How would you define the access capacity that the IAEA has right now?

R. Limited. Limited to the traditional scheme of a standard safeguard agreement, for any country. However, as we have just discussed, Iran’s nuclear program cannot be compared to that of any other country. In response to the decision of the Member States to adopt a resolution that simply told them that they must collaborate with the IAEA, they are very upset and cut off our access to the cameras.

P. Russia and China voted against that resolution. Both are countries involved in the negotiation to reactivate the pact, which takes place in a geopolitical situation of great tension. The IAEA has a relevant role as the monitoring agency. How do you judge, from that point of view, the state of the negotiation?

R. We do not manage the negotiation, but we accompany it very closely, because in the end we are the ones who have to inspect it. What we see at the moment is that there does not seem to be a positive resolution. I think there was a fairly solid agreement on the nuclear part, but what clearly transpires is that there are other areas, economic, political, financial, where there is no agreement. The end result is that I have been in very low visibility for almost five weeks, with a nuclear program advancing at a gallop and, therefore, if there is an agreement, it will be very difficult for me to piece together the puzzle of all this period of forced blindness. It is not impossible, but it will require a very complex task and perhaps some specific agreements. We need to rebuild a database, without which any agreement will rest on very fragile foundations, because if we do not know what is there, how can we determine how much material is to be exported, how many centrifuges are to be left unused? So this period worries and worries me.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General of the IAEA, during the interview this Wednesday in Madrid. Jaime Villanueva

P. Has Trump’s withdrawal from the deal created great harm?

R. He created a situation that had consequences. I think this does not escape the Trump Administration either. A decision was made, Iran responded, and we find ourselves in this situation. Complex, requiring quick action to get back on track.

P. The Reuters agency has reported that an internal IAEA report indicates that Iran has installed mechanisms in its cascade of centrifuges at the Fordow underground plant that allow changing the level of uranium enrichment with greater agility. Do you confirm this fact?

R. The technical advance of the Iranian program is constant.

P. The war in Ukraine raises cause for great concern also in the nuclear section. There are fifteen reactors in different plants in a country at war. In what state is the security of these facilities?

R. At the beginning of the campaign, Russian forces decide to take control of Chernobyl and Zaporizhia. Chernobyl is a site where we’re doing very sophisticated decommissioning, and there’s a lot of irradiated fuel. There is a very large exclusion zone. That was stabilized. When the Russian forces evacuated, we sent a team, we did an analysis, and a few days ago we were able to install a quantity of equipment donated by different countries. We have stabilized. The case of Zaporizhia is very different and very complex. It is the largest nuclear plant in Europe, six reactors, with the paradoxical and highly volatile situation of Russian military control and Ukrainian operators running the plant, with the tensions that can be imagined in that situation. I started a complex negotiation with the Russian side and with Ukraine – I discussed it with the president [Volodímir] Zelensky on the occasion of my visit to Kiev – to prepare a mission visit to address all these factors. I have insisted on the imperative need to go, and so far I have not succeeded.

P. Overall, what is your judgment on the responses of the Russian authorities?

R. I maintain a dialogue with the Russian authorities. It is essential to maintain an open dialogue with those who have effective control over a nuclear facility beyond its legitimacy. The dialogue is a professional dialogue.

P. The next day 1 is scheduled to start, finally, the review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Various political initiatives – such as the one in Stockholm – or civil society have moved to underpin and reinforce the role of the Treaty. However, the previous conference, in 2015, ended without consensus conclusions and the current geopolitical situation seems like a terrible prelude. What expectations do you have?

R. The NPT is an indispensable instrument. It’s not perfect, it could be more ambitious, but it did set some benchmarks for a proper global civil nuclear order. We must not forget the raison d’être of that Treaty. We are in a world where a number of unexpected uncertainties, unthinkable until recently, have violently emerged. It is very important that at the August meeting there is strong support from the countries surrounding the NPT. It will not be easy. There are many new elements that can be used as factors not to reaffirm the importance of the NPT and it would be very bad. He would sum it up in one sentence: I don’t see who can benefit from the NPT doing poorly.

P. It says that there are elements that can be used. Do the huge efforts of the great powers to modernize their nuclear arsenals – which fit poorly, at least with the spirit, if not with the letter of the NPT – weaken the Treaty?

R. Article 6 of the Treaty speaks of negotiations in good faith to move towards nuclear disarmament. The steps you describe certainly do not go in that direction, it is the least that can be said. At the same time, we must have a realistic reading of the international scene, which is what it is, with these tensions. The NPT may be the appropriate forum to remind the nuclear-weapon powers that they, too, have these responsibilities. The fact that article 6 is not moving as we said is not an obstacle for us to continue maintaining faith in the importance of this instrument.

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