New UN nuclear chief vows to be ‘firm and fair’ in Iran dispute

Veteran Argentine diplomat Rafael Grossi was sworn on December 2 as director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Sunday 08/12/2019
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi speaks during an interview in his office in Vienna, Austria December 3. (Reuters)
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi speaks during an interview in his office in Vienna, Austria December 3. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - The future of the landmark international nuclear deal with Iran hangs in the balance as Europe raises pressure on Tehran.

A meeting by the remaining partners if the nuclear agreement — China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom — with Iranian officials December 6 in Vienna ended without a firm commitment by Tehran to stop violations of the pact.

As the confrontation between Iran and the United States, which left the agreement last year, eroded the accord, the Europeans are torn between trying to save it and responding to Iran’s breaches, which have increasingly tested their patience. Iran said the violations can easily be reversed if the United States returns to the deal but Europe is growing impatient.

The European powers — called the E3 — and Iran also clashed over the Iranian ballistic missile programme, with the E3 charging that Iran tested a nuclear-capable ballistic missile, which Iran denies.

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, said the nuclear agreement could fail in a matter of weeks.

“The Iranians are running out of less-provocative and easily reversible measures,” Vaez said by e-mail. He added that a fresh Iranian move to breach the deal could push European signatories to trigger the “dispute resolution mechanism” in the 2015 accord, which could lead to the snapback of UN sanctions on Iran.

The Vienna meeting avoided an immediate collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is formally known, but the talks did not produce much optimism.

A European diplomat, quoted by Reuters, said the E3 stressed the need for Iran’s compliance. “The good thing is it’s still alive,” the diplomat said, highlighting the low expectations.

Diplomats have said a political decision was unlikely to be made until January, when Iran is expected to further scale back its adherence to the pact, under which it curtailed its nuclear activities in return for relief from sanctions.

“The European parties to the deal should know that the clock is ticking for them. They try to keep Iran in the deal but then take no action against America’s bullying and pressure,” said a senior Iranian official.

The meeting came just days after Iran called on the new chief of the UN nuclear watchdog to resist US pressure on Tehran.

Veteran Argentine diplomat Rafael Grossi was sworn on December 2 as director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the organisation tasked with making sure that Iran’s nuclear programme stays peaceful and within the limits of the 2015 nuclear deal. Grossi, 58, succeeds Yukiya Amano, who died in July at the age of 72.

Grossi has years of experience in the field. He held high-level posts at the agency from 2010-13 that put him in contact with Iranian officials during negotiations for the JCPOA. Grossi’s candidacy was supported by the United States, which left the JCPOA last year and lobbies for more pressure on Iran but the new IAEA chief stressed his impartiality on the Iran issue.

Without mentioning Iran specifically, Grossi said his approach to inspections would be “firm and fair.”

“An inspector is not a friend,” he said, adding that he would soon visit Iran.

Iran responded by reminding Grossi that he must not do Washington’s bidding.

“Iran believes that peaceful use of nuclear energy should not be hindered through unilateral and illegally forceful measures, nor be conditioned to any arbitrary and inadmissible preconditions on behalf of other countries,” Iran’s Press TV quoted Kazem Gharib Abadi, Tehran’s IAEA ambassador, as saying.

The Tehran government has taken several steps that violate provisions of the JCPOA, such as resuming uranium enrichment at its underground Fordow plant but says the decisions are easily reversible if the US returns to the agreement.

Adding to the tensions, the IAEA said Iran detained one of its nuclear inspectors and prevented her from leaving the country. The agency asked Iran to provide explanations for the presence of uranium particles at an undeclared site where the IAEA took samples last spring.

Under increasing economic pressure from sharp US sanctions following Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, Tehran has been looking for ways to keep oil exports going despite measures imposed by the Trump administration. Iranian Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri said the US pressure had failed and Iran was still selling oil.

One potential way out for Tehran is trade with China, Iran’s largest oil customer. Reports in the summer said Beijing kept buying Iranian crude despite US sanctions that say that agencies or companies that engage in the oil trade with Tehran would be excluded from the US market.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Abbas Araghchi said during a visit to China that Tehran and Beijing were utilising new techniques to enhance mutual economic cooperation, the Tehran Times newspaper reported.

“New paths have been found. We are returning to a stable economic situation regarding ties with China but we first should remove some barriers to upgrade economic relations between the two friendly nations,” Araghchi was quoted as saying.

Iran said Iranian President Hassan Rohani could visit Japan, a US ally that also has close relations with Tehran, to resolve the nuclear impasse, The Kyodo news agency reported. Japan, which has stopped buying oil from Iran because of the US sanctions, is keen to see stability in the Middle East, the source of the bulk of its oil imports.