UN nuclear chief headed to Tehran in February

Head of International Atomic Energy Agency also trying to garner support for nuclear safety zone in Ukraine

Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Grossi visits the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Reuters
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The head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog on Tuesday described a now-defunct nuclear deal between Iran and western nations as an “empty shell” but indicated that he is likely to travel to Tehran next month to discuss the country's nuclear activities in a bid to keep the door open to dialogue.

Speaking to members of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Security and Defence in Brussels, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, said that he hoped “to be making some progress” during his visit to Tehran.

“One thing is true: They have amassed enough nuclear material for several nuclear weapons, not one, at this point,” said Mr Rossi, claiming that 70kg of uranium had been enriched to 60 per cent purity and 1,000kg to 20 per cent.

The threshold for making nuclear weapons is considered to be about 90 per cent purity.

He said, however, that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon yet and that the West should continue its diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from obtaining one.

“That is why we have to keep engaged — we have to keep working, we shouldn’t give up,” he said.

Diplomatic activity linked to reviving the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, are currently close to non-existent, Mr Grossi said.

The EU has led talks aimed at trying to relaunch the deal after the US withdrew from it in 2018.

Mr Grossi said in November that Iran had produced uranium enriched up to 60 per cent. The JCPOA capped Iranian uranium enrichment at 3.67 per cent in exchange for sanctions relief.

Last year, the IAEA also asked Iran for answers regarding unexplained traces of uranium in three areas that were not supposed to be dedicated to nuclear activity. In retaliation, Iran disconnected 27 of the IAEA’s cameras, said Mr Grossi.

The diplomat told MEPs that his agency had still not received satisfactory answers regarding the unexplained traces of uranium but that some inspection activity was still ongoing.

He said that he was “blind” on many aspects, including how much material, how much equipment and how many centrifuges Iran currently has.

“In my reports, I’ve been saying we could try to reconstruct a jigsaw puzzle but it would be an additional task that we should have,” he said.

“We are unfortunately in this tit for tat, which is quite unfortunate and a typical dynamic” employed by Iran, he added.

“Nevertheless, the IAEA is there to offer ever possibility for diplomatic solution for these things, for dialogue, for establishing confidence that is missing.”

In addition to discussing Iran, Mr Grossi was in Brussels to drum up political support for the IAEA’s safeguarding activities at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, located in the contested Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine.

Mr Grossi said that he was trying to convince Russia and Ukraine to establish a nuclear safety zone around the plant, which is in Russian-controlled territory but operated by Ukrainian technical staff.

This safety zone would function like a “bubble” to exclude military action by both sides.

He warned that the plant continued to be exposed to shelling and that another blackout, which happened in November, could cause a nuclear disaster.

“Over the past few days, what we have seen is not direct shelling on the plant itself but rather on the vicinity with repeated rounds of bombing,” he said. “So the situation is pretty tense.”

The IAEA chief said that he had received some EU support for his proposal but that more was needed and that all parties — Europeans, Russia and Ukraine — had a common interest in keeping the area safe.

“I asked the president [Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine]: Do you want operational power plant when you get it back or a sabotaged maimed facility that you won’t be able to use?” he said.

Meanwhile, the Russians claim that they would not bomb Russian-controlled territory.

“Let’s call their bluff,” said Mr Grossi. “Let them protect the plant and not shell it.

“I don’t know for how long we’re going to be lucky [to] avoid a nuclear accident.”

Mr Grossi added that his agency had established a permanent presence at all five Ukrainian nuclear facilities and that inspections had found no military equipment, debunking a claim from Russia.

“The result of those inspections was negative,” he said.

Updated: January 24, 2023, 8:32 PM