UN Nuclear Watchdog Chief Presses for More Access in Iran's Nuclear Sites

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Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi (L) meets with Rafael Grossi (R), head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), upon his arrival in Tehran, Iran, today.
Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi (L) meets with Rafael Grossi (R), head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), upon his arrival in Tehran, Iran, today.Credit: Atomic Energy Organization of Iran / AFP

The head of the United Nations' atomic watchdog met Tuesday with Iranian officials to press for greater access in the Islamic Republic on the eve of diplomatic talks restarting over Tehran's tattered nuclear deal with world powers.

Rafael Mariano Grossi of the International Atomic Energy Agency yet again faces tightrope-style talks with Iranian officials as his inspectors remain unable to access surveillance footage and face greater challenges in trying to monitor Tehran's rapidly growing uranium stockpile. Despite a joint statement by the IAEA and Iran in September announcing a return to regular inspection of Iranian nuclear sites and centrifuge factories, Iran has continued to deny access to UN inspectors. 

Two IAEA reports to member states last week detailed a range of conflicts between the agency and Iran, ranging from Tehran's continued failure to explain the origin of uranium particles found at apparently old but undeclared sites, to its refusal to let the IAEA re-install surveillance cameras at a workshop hit by apparent sabotage in June.

On Tuesday, Grossi arrived in Tehran to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the country's civilian nuclear agency, for his third-such visit since February. He was set to speak to Mohammad Eslami, the new head of the organization. The UN in 2008 sanctioned Eslami for “being engaged in, directly associated with or providing support for Iran’s proliferation sensitive nuclear activities or for the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems.”

Writing on Twitter on Monday, Grossi said he hoped to “address outstanding questions” with Iranian officials.

“I hope to establish a fruitful and cooperative channel of direct dialogue so the (IAEA) can resume essential verification activities in the country,” Grossi wrote.

Under a confidential agreement called an “Additional Protocol” with Iran, the IAEA collects and analyzes images from a series of surveillance cameras installed at Iranian nuclear sites. Those cameras helped it monitor Tehran’s program to see if it is complying with the nuclear deal.

Iran’s hardline parliament in December 2020 approved a bill that would suspend part of UN inspections of its nuclear facilities if European signatories did not provide relief from oil and banking sanctions by February. Since February, the IAEA has been unable to access imagery from those cameras.

Under the deal, the IAEA also placed around 2,000 tamper-proof seals on nuclear material and equipment. Those seals communicated electronically to inspectors. Automated measuring devices also provided real-time data from the program. Inspectors as well haven't been able to access that data, making the task of monitoring Iran's enriched uranium stockpile that much more difficult.

Tuesday's meeting comes ahead of a wider meeting of the IAEA member states. Iran avoided facing a censure vote at the board with a similar Grossi visit in September.

While Iran maintains its program is peaceful, regional rival Israel has repeatedly warned it won't allow Tehran to build a nuclear weapon and is suspected of launching attacks targeting its program as part of a wider regional shadow war playing across the Mideast in recent years. The U.S. under President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has said it's willing to return to the deal, but has warned time is running out.

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