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International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi spent two days in Iran for talks with high level officials including Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, Iranian Top Nuclear Negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani and the head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), Mohammad Eslami. His visit was at Eslami’s invitation, in order to also participate in the 1st International Conference on Nuclear Science & Technology (ICNST) as well as the 30th National Nuclear Conference in Isfahan (see related story).

Relations between Iran and the IAEA have been problematic since September 2023 when Iran withdrew the designation of several Agency inspectors assigned to conduct verification activities in Iran under the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] Safeguards Agreement. Iran’s action came after the IAEA Board of Governors issued a statement accusing Iran of non-compliance with its safeguards commitments. The statement was initiated by the UK, the US, France and Germany. The Iranian Foreign Ministry also criticised the UK, France and Germany (E3) for their decision to retain the sanctions against Tehran in contravention of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The sanctions were due to expire but the three countries decided to keep them in place.

Under the JCPOA between Iran the P5+1 group of countries (the USA, UK, France, Russia, and China plus Germany) Iran had agreed to limit its nuclear development in return for the lifting of sanctions. However, after former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions in 2018, Iran began to redevelop its nuclear programme when the European parties to the agreement failed to offer any compensation for the US's withdrawal. IAEA had been monitoring Iran’s nuclear development programme.

According to the Foreign Ministry’s website, Amirabdollahian said Grossi’s visit came at the right time, particularly given the complicated and sensitive situation in the region. He said Grossi’s impartial and professional positions, in addition to effective assistance in cooperation between Iran and the agency, will be effective in restoring stability and security to the region.

He then highlighted the history of the US’s non-compliance with the previous agreements on Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme, saying cooperation between Iran and the IAEA should not be influenced by the unstable and contradictory policy and behaviour of Washington. Amirabdollahian urged that this cooperation should continue in the right direction, and at the same time, the two sides should feel that this cooperation results in a breakthrough.

Following his meetings with Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian and Ali Bagheri Kani shortly after his arrival, Grossi said in a post on X: "I proposed a set of concrete practical measures for the revitalisation of the 4 March 2023 Joint Statement with aim of restoring process of confidence building and increasing transparency."

The Joint Statement refers to a declaration issued at the end of Grossi's last visit to Iran in March 2023, where both sides agreed to continue their interactions in "a spirit of collaboration, and in full conformity with the competences of the IAEA and the rights and obligations of the Islamic Republic of Iran, based on the comprehensive Safeguards Agreement".

However, implementation of the Joint Statement to resolve safeguards issues was stalled. Iran says that the safeguards-related allegations against Iran's nuclear activities are based on forged documents provided by Israel to IAEA officials. These alleged five years ago that "uranium traces” had been found at “undeclared nuclear sites” inside Iran – something consistently denied by Iran.

Following his talks in Tehran, Grossi then went on to Isfahan to attend the nuclear conferences and for talks with AEOI head Eslami. Opening the ICNST, Eslami stressed that cooperation between Iran and the IAEA is progressing within the framework of the Safeguards. He noted that IAEA reports testify that Iran is subjected to 22% of all inspections the IAEA conducts across the world, which is unprecedented in history. He expressed hope that the IAEA would play its professional role without coming under the influence of others.

Following talks on the sidelines of the conference, Grossi and Islami held a joint press conference. "In these negotiations, we evaluated the progress of the March statement as a positive baseline,” Eslami said. “After reviewing the joint statement, it was hoped that this line would continue as the basis". He added that an important issue of the discussion was the two remaining locations [where uranium traces were allegedly found]. “Fortunately, two locations have been closed, and the issue of material inconsistency has also been closed, and two of the four locations remain.”

On two other discussed with Grossi, Islami said: "The second is related to the existing situation, which is to take mutual and coordinated measures for the shortcomings and expectations that exist within the framework of safeguards and the NPT and the concerns that the International Atomic Energy Agency has…. The third is the future steps and mutual expectations and the role of the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which can be effective in removing the obstacles that are mainly political.”

Grossi confirmed that there would be no new official document “and that our basis is the March statement and we agreed on its operational steps for the joint programme to draw the future path.” That agreement was an important document that indicates the level of cooperation between Iran and the Agency in the field of surveillance and safeguards. It requires the efforts of both sides to resolve the remaining cases and verify them. Grossi added: "These steps have been taken over the past year, and despite the shortcomings and ups and downs that have existed, we agreed to continue this document and this document is standing and based on its clauses, [new] steps are needed.

He continued: “I proposed to Iran to take a series of operational steps that will define our path forward, and now the teams of the parties are in various meetings to define these elements of operational steps.” Asked about Israel’s allegations about Iran, he replied: "We do not pay attention to foreign actors, and our audience is Iran and its role in security and peace…. We cooperate with Iran to clear any doubts; We are aware of this and will move in the right direction with Iran."

At the end of Grossi's visit, a joint statement was issued by AEOI and IAEA which referred to continuation of interactions with "full compliance with the agency's competences and Iran's rights and obligations based on comprehensive safeguards agreements". The statement also said: "Iran voluntarily allows the agency to carry out further verification and monitoring activities if necessary." Referring to locations where enriched uranium particles had been discovered, the statement said: “Iran is ready to continue cooperation and provide more information and access for the purpose of dealing with the remaining security issues.”

At a press conference on his arrival back at Vienna Airport, Grossi said initial progress under the March 2023 statement had "slowed down almost to the point of stopping", leading to a "long period" in which the parties had not been talking directly to each other, which he described as "extremely negative".

His aim was "to re-engage, to have a serious conversation, and to start analysing a number of concrete proposals, which could fit into the different areas that this joint statement covers", he added. There are a number of concrete points and measures on the table for discussion, some of which are voluntary, he said. Discussions are ongoing. "So, what I would say is that we are engaged in … trying to define what can be done, soonest, I would say, so that we can start, delivering on some of these aspects."

Grossi said it would not be "appropriate" for him to describe these proposals other than in general terms at this stage until they have been agreed, apart from saying they are connected with uranium enrichment and with "access to certain facilities". He confirmed that the discussions had also addressed the designation of IAEA inspectors.

Grossi said there were no deadlines, but noted that the international community needs results sooner rather than later. "And this is something that was very clearly expressed by me in Tehran and in Isfahan. And I think there is an understanding in Tehran that this is not something that can continue, forever. So we expect, I certainly expect, to start having some concrete results soon."

He cautioned that there was “no magic wand” to dealing with “very complex issues, some from the past and some now”. He said Iran has expectations “as I have”. At the end of the day, “if they engage with us, we will be able to solve these issues.” He added: It is a very difficult process, but we are on it.”

Press comments from Iran were generally positive. “The recent visit of Rafael Grossi, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to Iran has raised expectations for a potential breakthrough in relations between Iran and the IAEA regarding nuclear programme,” MNA noted. “However, for a significant change to occur, both sides, particularly the UN agency, must be willing to take decisive actions to address the situation once and for all. Despite Grossi's previous visits to Iran, few have resulted in the level of optimism currently expressed by both parties.”

Image: IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi with Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian shake hands before their meeting

Date: Saturday, 11 May 2024
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