WASHINGTON – The head of the UN nuclear watchdog has said its surveillance program in Iran was no longer “intact” after Tehran denied requests for repairs to cameras at a key facility, creating the possibility that the world will never be “able to reconstruct the picture” of what the Iranians have done.
In an interview with NBC News, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, said he had not been able to establish the type of direct communication with the Iranian government he had before a radical new government led by President Ebrahim Raisi was elected in June.
“I never spoke to the new foreign minister,” says Grossi. “I hope I can have the opportunity to meet him soon because it’s very important… so when there is a problem, when there is a misunderstanding, when there is a disagreement, we can talk about it. I used to have it before, and I guess I would be the normal thing. Grossi spoke during a visit to Washington as the fate of the Iran nuclear deal hangs in the balance, with world powers urgently urging Iran to resume negotiations to restore the deal and the United States saying time is running out.
Although Grossi says he had “no indication” that Iran is currently fighting a bomb, he says the world doesn’t need to look any further than North Korea to figure out what is going on. Thu IAEA inspectors were expelled from North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, in 2009, and the country is now believed to have dozens of nuclear warheads.
“The DPRK case should remind us of what can happen if diplomatic efforts go wrong,” Grossi said. “It’s a clear example, it’s an indication, it’s a beacon. If diplomacy fails, you could be faced with a situation that would have enormous political impact in the Middle East and beyond. “
The 2015 Iran nuclear deal, concluded by Iran, world powers and the United States under former President Barack Obama, imposed significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. Former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018 and reimposed tough sanctions, leading Iran to renounce many of its commitments under the deal and enrich uranium at 60% purity – close to military grade.
The Biden administration and European partners want to restore the deal, but after six rounds of talks negotiations have stalled after Raisi’s election. Now the United States and Israel are talking more openly of a “plan B” – widely seen as a military option to stop Iran’s nuclear program if diplomacy fails.
“We are prepared to look to other options if Iran does not change course,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this month in a joint appearance with Israel’s top diplomat.
The Iranian mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. Iran has always maintained that its nuclear program is for peaceful civilian purposes.
Earlier this year, after Iran stopped allowing IAEA inspectors to perform snap inspections required under the 2015 deal, Grossi negotiated a “stopper” deal in which Iran would allow IAEA cameras to continue to operate. That way, if the agreement, known as the JCPOA, was restored, the nations of the world could piece together what had happened during the time it expired.
Grossi says Iran has allowed the IAEA to access most of its cameras for servicing with new batteries and memory cards, with one important exception: a facility on the outskirts of Tehran that manufactures centrifuge parts and has was damaged in June in what Iran says was an act of sabotage by Israel. Iran cited its ongoing investigation into the attack as denying IAEA access to the site, Grossi said.
Without this access, the IAEA’s monitoring and verification program in Iran is “no longer intact,” says Grossi.
“It hasn’t crippled what we’re doing there, but the damage that’s been done, with the potential of not being able to piece together the picture, the puzzle,” Grossi says. “If and when the JCPOA is restarted, I know that in order for the JCPOA partners to come to an agreement, they will need to know where they are stepping. “
As North Korea expands its nuclear arsenal and tests new weapons, including a ballistic missile reportedly fired from a submarine, Grossi seemed optimistic about the possibility of reviving diplomacy with Pyongyang. He says he and Blinken, who met Grossi during his visit to Washington, discussed the possibility of “trying to re-engage.”
“There will therefore be a possibility of returning there with our inspectors,” said Grossi, although he added that it is impossible to know now whether the objective would be partial or total denuclearization given that the North already has nuclear weapons.
He says given the proliferation of sites through North Korea’s sprawling nuclear program, creating an inspection regime would be much more difficult than in Iran.
“It would be a very big effort,” says Grossi.