Nuclear Energy

Talks with Iran 'intense': U.N. nuclear watchdog

Published : November 24, 2021 17:17 IST

Rafael Grossi (right) described talks with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Eslami (left) as 'intense'. Photo: Mehr

IAEA boss Rafael Grossi has called on officials in Tehran to grant access to surveillance footage at nuclear sites.

Rafael Grossi, the head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was in Tehran on November 23 for talks with representatives from the Islamic Republic's new government. "I hope to establish a fruitful and cooperative channel of direct dialogue so the [IAEA] can resume essential verification activities in the country," said Grossi via Twitter.

Among those with whom Grossi met was Mohammad Eslami, the new head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI). Eslami was sanctioned by the U.N. in 2008 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."

Grossi described negotiations with the AEOI, his third since February, as "intense," remarking: "We are continuing at this point our negotiations with a view to finding common ground." The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said that "establishing a clear framework for cooperation between the IAEA and the agency is one of the main topics of discussion." Resumption of negotiations over the fate of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, are scheduled to begin on November 29 in Vienna, where the IAEA is headquartered.

Why can't IAEA inspectors get access to Iranian nuclear sites?

In 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the deal and reinstated crippling sanctions on Iran. One year later, Iran began limiting its cooperation with international observers while at the same time increasing the amount of nuclear material it was enriching — as well as the quality thereof. Since then, Tehran has demanded that all sanctions imposed or reimposed on Iran by the U.S. since 2017 be lifted. Under President Joe Biden the U.S. has affirmed its willingness to return to the JCPOA but has also warned time is running out, saying that Iran is approaching the point of no return for reviving the deal.

Iran has steadfastly maintained that its nuclear program is peaceful. Regional rival Israel, however, has repeatedly warned it will not sit idly by as Tehran builds a nuclear weapon. Israel is suspected of having carried out a number of attacks on Iran's nuclear program. On November 23, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Iran's nuclear program had reached "a very advanced stage,'' and noted he expects "disagreement with our greatest of friends" over how to deal with the issue. "Either way, even with the return to an agreement, Israel is of course not part of the agreement. Israel is not bound by it," said Bennett, "We will maintain our freedom to act."

Israel's position, combined with Iranian intransigence, has raised the risk of a wider confrontation with Tehran, which has taken a harder stance ahead of talks under its new President Ebrahim Raisi — a protege of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In December 2020, Iran's hard-line parliament approved a bill that would partially suspend U.N. inspections at its nuclear facilities if European signatories did not offer relief from U.S. oil and banking sanctions by February.

Since February, the IAEA has been unable to access imagery from surveillance cameras that it had installed at Iranian nuclear sites, making it increasingly difficult to monitor Tehran's growing uranium stockpile. An IAEA report issued on November 17 claimed Iran had boosted its stockpile of highly enriched uranium to 2,489.7 kilograms (5,506 pounds). The total amount now includes 113.8 kg enriched to 20 per cent — up from 84.3 kg in September — and 17.7 kilos enriched up to 60 per cent — up from 10 kg. Grossi also voiced concern over IAEA inspectors "being subjected to excessively invasive physical searches by security officials at nuclear facilities in Iran" in a separate report to IAEA member states earlier this month.

The remaining JCPOA signatories — The United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia — will join the talks on November 29 in Vienna. The United States will participate indirectly.

js/rs (AFP, AP)