New IAEA chief’s greatest challenge may lie with Iran

Pressure on the IAEA will build with Iran’s nuclear expansion, especially with increased uranium enrichment.
Sunday 08/12/2019
Challenging task. Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks in Vienna, December 3.  (AP)
Challenging task. Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks in Vienna, December 3. (AP)

Rafael Mariano Grossi, an Argentinian who is the new director-general of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency, is a relative unknown taking up a leading global post.

The agency’s remit is clearly defined and its operation managed by a board of 35 countries but the director has leeway in working to “enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity.”

John Bolton, then US ambassador to the United Nations, in 2009 reportedly called Mohamed ElBaradei, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief from 1997-2009, a “pain in the neck.” Bolton saw the Egyptian as a bureaucrat interfering in politics. Others felt ElBaradei’s adherence to rules helped him resist politicians and win a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

Despite tensions in Korea and the lingering aftermath of Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Grossi’s greatest challenge may lie with Iran, the most monitored state by the agency in its nuclear-inspection “safeguards” role under the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Tehran is ramping up its nuclear programme with new steps at 60-day intervals, most recently restarting work at the fortified Fordow underground facility near Qom. This responds to crippling US economic sanctions since President Donald Trump last year abandoned Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Diplomats are unsure what kind of IAEA leader Grossi will be. “He’s smooth, polished and it’s always hard to know that type,” mused one.

Grossi’s nomination had strong backing from Washington but he also had Moscow’s support. Several diplomats detect neutrality in Grossi’s IAEA record as chief-of-staff from 2002-07, deputy director-general from 2010-13 and acting director since Yukiya Amano died in office in July.

“It’s a fact of life that certain IAEA member states seek to influence the decisions and policy choices of directors-general,” said Peter Jenkins, former British ambassador to the IAEA. “A good director-general [DG] knows how to resist such pressure and understands how vital it is that the global community view the agency as an impartial guardian of the integrity of the NPT safeguarding regime. DGs are answerable to the Board of Governors and the General Conference [of all 171 members].”

With Iran, Jenkins said he expected “in all probability, continuity” given Grossi’s work with Amano had familiarised him with the agency’s “scrupulous approach.”

Michel Makinsky, Iran specialist at Ageromys International in Paris, said Grossi’s promise at his initial news conference to be “firm but fair” suggested he had learnt from Amano, who “started by showing firmness, building up his credibility and authority but then smoothly began to show pragmatism and a sense of diplomacy.”

Grossi, however, faces a stiffer challenge with Tehran, Makinsky added: “Iran is step-by-step partially breaching JCPOA provisions, claiming Washington has withdrawn and other parties [Europe, China, Russia] are not complying with their commitments [to mitigate Iran’s financial losses due to US sanctions]. So Grossi cannot smile when Tehran is in breach and neither can he ignore Washington’s unilateralism and Europe’s inability to implement the JCPOA.”

Pressure on the IAEA will build with Iran’s nuclear expansion, especially with increased uranium enrichment. Iran’s staunchest critics — including Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is pressing over uranium found at the Turquzabad site near Tehran — will not be alone in talking of ticking clocks.

“The production of a nuclear weapon has come no closer as a result of the actions Iran has taken so far,” said Sir Richard Dalton, former British ambassador to Iran. “On the positive side, Tehran has again emphasised that it doesn’t want to limit IAEA access to nuclear facilities. The security ‘gap,’ however, in terms of time during which the country would acquire enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, fixed [by the JCPOA] at no less than a year, is now shrinking.”

Dalton said that, while French President Emmanuel Macron’s diplomatic efforts — designed to allow Iran higher oil sales in return for reapplying JCPOA limits — should not be discounted, Europe was failing to bridge the US-Iran gap.

“The EU hasn’t carried out its obligations to facilitate trade and investment,” said Dalton. “By failing to confront US policy, the EU has in effect connived at it. The EU and Iran are talking but they may now be talking past each other.”

In a febrile atmosphere enflamed by protests against petrol price increases, opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rohani denounce the IAEA. Fundamentalist media accuse agency inspectors of spying and demand faster escalation in the nuclear programme.

Iran also has reason to cooperate, recalling the IAEA board in 2006 referred the nuclear programme to the UN Security Council. This gives the agency and its new director some latitude.

“Safeguarding requires diplomatic skill,” said Jenkins. “The agency is entitled to demand respect for the legal contracts into which safeguarded states enter and can be firm but it must show respect for the dignity of sovereign states and try to avoid becoming a source of controversy within them.”