IAEA may hold ‘high-level’ talks in Iran as nuclear concerns grow

UN nuclear watchdog's chief urged for transparency from Tehran

Military personnel stand guard at a nuclear site in the Zardanjan area of Isfahan, Iran. Reuters
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The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, is considering holding a high-level political discussion in Tehran within the next “couple of weeks” as concerns grow about Iran’s nuclear programme, its director general has said.

Iran, which is currently in the middle of a stand-off with Israel – another nuclear nation – is “very close” to possessing enough enriched uranium to produce several nuclear warheads, Rafael Grossi told The National on the sidelines of the World Energy Congress on Wednesday.

“But that does not mean they have them now. One needs to be careful,” Mr Grossi said.

Last week, Israel fired kamikaze drones at an arms factory in Isfahan, a key site for Iran’s nuclear programme, in response to Tehran's drone and missile attack.

Mr Grossi said at the time that Iran informed him that “all the nuclear complexes that we are inspecting every day would remain closed on security considerations”.

Iran has declared 21 sites to the agency and the organisation has also inspected suspected sites where uranium particles have been found – including particles of uranium enriched over 80 per cent – close to the level generally required for a nuclear weapon.

"People all over the world are asking themselves why they [Iran] are doing this. What is the intent? Hence, our insistence with our Iranian counterparts that they exercise the transparency that is required, so as to avoid doubts or uncertainties that could lead precisely to conflictual situations and perhaps the use of force," Mr Grossi said.

"This is why we are constantly engaging with them and at the moment, we are considering the possibility of returning to Tehran within the next couple of weeks to try to have a high-level political discussion and putting this whole thing back on track," he added.

Inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities over the years have been intermittent, despite the US, the EU and the UN insisting on access, mirroring contentious talks on returning to a 2015 deal that former US president Donald Trump scrapped.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action under Barack Obama, Mr Trump's predecessor, briefly allowed UN inspectors access to sites, highly regulating uranium enrichment for civilian purposes, in exchange for a significant easing of sanctions.

However, since its collapse and the restoration of tight sanctions on Iran, relations between the IAEA and Tehran have frayed. Iran also accused the UN organisation of working with Israel to sabotage its nuclear complexes.

Iranians rally against Israel after suspect drone strike

Iranians rally against Israel after suspect drone strike

"We have been looking at so many different crises and trying to play a constructive role in several of them," Mr Rossi said on Wednesday.

"Now is a new chapter in the sense that we have the Gaza crisis compounded with the latest exchanges between Israel and Iran, both members of the IAEA with different characteristics and different situations," he added.

"I have been urging for utmost restraint for cool heads to prevail, and for co-operation with the IAEA at all times."

Nuclear push

Meanwhile, outside of Iran, development of a civil nuclear power industry is progressing in the Middle East, Mr Grossi said.

Saudi Arabia is preparing bids for a number of nuclear power plants that it is planning to build.

“This has not happened yet. They have commissioned a low power research reactor from Argentina which they have not received yet. We see a lot of activity of a preparatory nature,” he said.

Despite being a large and important country in various aspects, the kingdom is relatively "small" in nuclear terms, with limited inspections.

"We are inviting them to start the process of adapting their norms and their practices to a situation where from the moment they start hosting nuclear material, they are going to be subject to inspections like any other country in the world," he added.

The UAE, the first in the Arab region to open a nuclear power plant, plans to meet 25 per cent of its electricity requirements from nuclear energy once its Barakah plant becomes fully operational this year.

It would have been "unthinkable" a few years ago for nuclear reactors to be operating in the Emirates, Mr Grossi said, adding that he was confident about Saudi Arabia going ahead with its nuclear energy programme.

"There's no doubt about it, they will need to decide the pace and the intensity of the effort that is there. That is their decision," he said.

The IAEA chief also said that other countries in the Middle East were exploring the use of nuclear energy, particularly with small modular reactors for desalination and other activities.

"We certainly see Gulf countries moving into nuclear and in a wider sense in the Arab world ... I think it's a completely different scenario than the one we used to have before," Mr Grossi said.

Updated: April 24, 2024, 3:20 PM