International Atomic Energy Agency director-general Rafael Grossi has a very busy schedule these days. As world powers gear up to sign a new nuclear deal with Iran, and with Russia targeting nuclear facilities in Ukraine, Grossi struggles to maintain the global nuclear balance.

Grossi, 61, finds that he has to walk a very fine line, and between mysterious explosions in sensitive facilities in Iran and the ayatollah regime’s subterfuge, the IAEA chief has found himself at the center of the shadow war between Jerusalem and Tehran.

Q: Let’s begin with the Feb. 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine, where half of the energy supply comes from nuclear plants. This includes Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear accident in human history in 1986. This plant is currently in Russian hands, its inspectors have apparently been abducted and there is no flow of information with which to monitor the situation.

A: This is a very unusual situation as a result of the conflict [in Ukraine]. It is a historical precedent that a conflict involving military forces takes place in a geographical area that has 15 nuclear reactors and a number of [nuclear] facilities, so it is a situation that I have defined as one that raises serious concerns, especially around two facilities and anything that might happen at any other facility.

You mentioned the situation in Chernobyl, which is a power plant that does not produce electricity; the reactors there are shut down and there is very meticulous work around … reactor number four—the famous reactor that suffered an accident in 1986. The difficulty we have—I would correct you and say that technically, the inspectors were not abducted—[is that] this is a facility that is under the control of Russian military forces and it is very difficult for them [IAEA inspectors] to change shifts, for example, which is something they have to do, so there is a very unusual situation there.

… There are issues with the flow of information. We do get environmental information about levels of radiation, and there have been some disturbances when the station was without power. There was a 24-36 hour gap until the issue was resolved.

Q: Let’s turn our attention to Iran and its relations with the IAEA, which you head. For years now there have been transparency issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, problems that continue to this day. In 2019, IAEA inspectors found traces and uranium particles at two unreported sites. To this day, your questions have not been answered. Can you elaborate on this issue and on Iran’s response to it?

A: Well, this is a process that has been going on for a long time. I assumed the role of director-general at the end of 2019 and immediately started the mission with a very clear, very direct approach toward Iran, noting that the situation can not continue like this. If you follow the Iranian issue you might remember that I asked for physical access to a number of places and was rejected at first.

It was a very tense situation. I had to fly to Iran—I’m talking about the previous government, during the time of President [Hassan] Rouhani and Foreign Minister [Mohammad] Javad Zarif. I was able to resolve the issue, we got access, then there is a change of government, but so far, the process itself has not produced good results.

This is a cause for concern because as you mentioned, we found traces of enriched uranium, meaning uranium that has undergone a very specific process from another, unreported, site where nuclear material should never have been found. So our questions to Iran were very clear, simple and transparent: if there was nuclear material here, where is it? If there was equipment, where is it, and what was done with it? Because we have no record of that. This brought about a frustrating, circular process of questions and answers that I found to be technically non-credible and that led, at a certain point, to an impasse.

While this process was taking place, another one was emerging here in Vienna, like two parallel lines converging, with further negotiations between Iran and the six powers that in 2015 became part of an integral agreement, supervised and controlled by the IAEA. This agreement was always dysfunctional; it was in effect but not enforced. When the Trump administration, as you probably remember, unilaterally withdrew from this agreement in 2018, Iran remained in the agreement for a period of time and at one point also began to abandon the nuclear control measures in the agreement.

These processes, the IAEA investigation process I head, and the process of negotiations that have resumed with the Biden administration in the United States, have been progressing to a pretty clear point for all the players, and certain, actual progress of the IAEA investigation should have taken place to facilitate the negotiations on a second [nuclear agreement] and reach a positive result.

Let me put it this way: it is hard to imagine that anyone can reach a comprehensive agreement like the current JCPOA when talks with the IAEA in the second negotiations are deadlocked.

‘I do not suspect anyone but I want to monitor everything’

I recently visited Iran and held long conversations with Foreign Minister [Hossein Amir] Abdollahian, and we reached an understanding on how to work from now on. This point has to be stressed because some international media outlets were confused, saying that “there’s a deal with Iran” [over suspicious material].

The truth is that there is no substantive agreement. What we have is an agreement on the way in which possible clarity on these issues can be achieved, and we are in the process of doing so. Next week, as agreed upon a few days ago in Tehran, Iran will provide us with a first “block” of information so that we can examine it and in this way, get to what I expect— clarification of this issue. Much hinges on the fruits of this cooperation.

Q: Can you elaborate on what the Iranians said about your questions? What was Iran’s specific answer regarding the trace evidence that was found? 

A: There are many open and pretty technical issues at hand. To simplify it without getting into the convoluted technicalities, I would say that the explanations we got are technically inadequate, meaning that the explanations we got about the presence of those particles are not plausible.

Q: Since taking office in December 2019 you have been leading a very active position. Given what Iran is doing, do you believe that its nuclear program is a peaceful one?

A: Look, I think that in my position, judging intentions is a very difficult thing, impossible even. What I need is for Iran to work with us and give us all the necessary answers. To put it in a balanced way—and as [the representative of] an international body I must always be balanced—I do not suspect anyone, but I want to monitor everything. I have to oversee everything. Therefore, when certain people say, “No, Iran will not have nuclear weapons because it goes against the religious edict,’ I respect that, but they have to prove it.

At the same time, When there are others who say, “I’m sure Iran is developing a bomb,” we need proof, and that’s why the IAEA exists—to draw a balanced, technical and very meticulous line. Earlier you mentioned my approach—I believe this is the approach that should be followed.

The organization should be relentless in its activities because as I mentioned earlier, in order to reach a JCPOA agreement or not with Iran, I believe that Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Moscow or Beijing, as the powers involved, would want, require and demand that when they enter into an agreement of such important dimensions with Iran, there will be nothing vague about it, nothing hidden in this country.

So I will say to you what I said to the Iranians—what I made very clear to them: If you want normalcy you must exercise transparency. Otherwise, it would be completely impossible. So I say again—my approach is positive, it is constructive, but it is also rigorous.

Q: We know, for example, that Iran’s uranium enrichment level exceeds the stipulations in the JCPOA, and you yourself have said that IAEA inspectors in Iran have been harassed. Can you elaborate on that?

A: These were difficult moments. These are my inspectors and I have a duty to protect them. There have been moments in recent months when inspectors were treated inappropriately. I complained very vigorously, clearly and publicly, and I believe that it prompted the situation to return to normal immediately. There has been no mistreatment or inappropriate contact with any of my inspectors since. On the other hand, I believe this [the harassment] was meant to have a secondary aspect, a psychological one, against the inspectors’ mission.

What is essential is the technical answers that we have yet to receive to the technical questions we posed. You mentioned enrichment levels … I also referred to it because I am very clear, and I addressed these things very directly. I have said: A country that enriches uranium to a level of 60%, which practically speaking is military-grade—maybe you can do that but it is essential to have a very active, very robust IAEA presence there.

Therefore, this is an important point; If the JCPOA is resurrected, this [enrichment] process is disrupted because under the agreement they [Iran] can enrich up to a level of 3.67%, not 60%. That is a huge difference. The JCPOA can restore the great oversight capacity that we have lost.

I would like to point out that our inspectors are in Iran 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, but the JCPOA, as you know, allows the IAEA a much wider range of activities than regular oversight agreements.

Q: Let’s say something happens in the coming days or weeks and a nuclear deal is not signed. How long does the IAEA believe it would take Iran to enrich uranium to a military grade and possibly get a nuclear bomb?

A: Here it is very important to stress the difference in the terminology, especially for audiences in Israel, where the issue of “nuclear breakthrough” or the ability to reach the minimum level to develop nuclear weapons is very present in public discourse, and also for the international community.

You have to distinguish between two very important things: one is the possibility of accumulating nuclear material in a certain amount, and the other is to possess nuclear weapons. Between the two there is a path that can be long or short, depending on the technological capabilities that a country develops if it strives to get nuclear weapons illegally.

When we speak about quantities [of enriched uranium] … I would say that the quantities themselves are large, but what you need is much more than a certain quantity, and there are many countries that have the same quantities because they have a nuclear program—Ukraine, for example. The issue is not the amounts of enriched uranium they possess or how much plutonium they can produce—it is about the ability of those countries to account for every gram of what they have, and the only way to do that is to respect the supervision of the IAEA.

Q: Do you understand Israel’s concern about the Iranian nuclear program? 

A: Of course. First of all, I would like to say that I had the honor to speak with [Israeli] Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on these issues, and with the leaders of other countries as well.

As you can imagine, the issue of Iran or issues concerning North Korea, Iraq, Syria, what is currently happening in Ukraine—what the agency is doing is of great interest among heads of state and, of course, in Israel because clearly, in the Middle East, the issue of nuclear weapons and the development of nuclear weapons has been a constant concern. Therefore, I fully understand the concerns that exist and my duty as head of the IAEA is to explain the situation.

I found in the prime minister a very sophisticated interlocutor, who understands the problems with Iran well. As I mentioned, there is an open dialogue with him and we will continue with it, of course.

Q: With your permission, let’s explore a more pessimistic scenario. What do you think could happen if Israel decides to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities?

A: I hope this never happens. First of all, I am a diplomat with 40 years of experience dedicated to international peace and security. I always believe in diplomacy, in negotiations, and that there is always a way to prevent war. I want to say that any attack on a nuclear facility is prohibited under international law. I understand you’re speaking theoretically, but I believe it’s something that should never be allowed to happen.

Secondly, I want to say, not only to Israel but also to the international community, that the IAEA has the necessary strong and objective means to ensure that there will be no proliferation of nuclear weapons. This is why the support of all of the members of the organization is so important to us. The IAEA’s strength is derived from the strength its members themselves lend it.

This is why I found the conversation I had with Prime Minister Bennett a few days ago so satisfactory—for us, it is essential. The support for the international organization in these historic moments, when there is so much uncertainty and when the scenario by which countries want to procure existing nuclear weapons, is something that I see as essential.

The full interview with International Atomic Energy Agency Director Rafael Grossi will air on i24NEWS on March 20, at 8 p.m. Israel time.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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