The International Atomic Energy Agency must be unyielding in reporting any failure by Iran to comply with a landmark nuclear agreement that is gradually unravelling, according to a leading contender to head the UN’s nuclear watchdog.
Rafael Grossi, an Argentine diplomat who is in the running to take over the IAEA after the death of its previous director-general, Yukiya Amano, in July, said the agency had to “tell it as it is” and stick to its mandate of policing compliance with the 2015 deal.
The atomic deal has come close to collapse since US president Donald Trump pulled out of it last year.
The IAEA had consistently found Iran to be honouring its pledges under the accord, but the Islamic republic said in May it would gradually decrease its commitments to limit uranium enrichment activities. Iran has promised to renew its full compliance if European states do more to help it withstand US sanctions.
Mr Grossi, 58, told the Financial Times that Iran’s stepping up of uranium enrichment may not threaten an imminent crisis, but was “a serious matter” that must be handled “extremely prudently” to avoid further escalation. “Stability must be restored,” he said.
The nuclear deal, which gave Iran relief from international sanctions in return for curbs on its atomic programme, aimed to keep the country at least one year away from amassing enough fissile material to make a nuclear weapon.
Mr Grossi indicated that Iran’s position had not changed in the recent past, saying it was still little more than a year away from reaching a “breakthrough”.
Iran insists that it has no intention of building a nuclear weapon. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has issued a binding religious decree which forbids proliferation and use of nuclear weapons.
Mr Grossi said it was an open question whether Iran’s enrichment move was a protest at economic hardship caused by US sanctions or a “deliberate accelerated effort” that could lead to a “more problematic situation”.
On Sunday Iran’s Revolutionary Guards announced it had seized a foreign oil tanker for smuggling fuel last Wednesday, the latest detention of a vessel amid elevated tensions in the Gulf. Iran did not disclose the nationalities of the tanker or its seven foreign crew members.
Mr Grossi is currently Argentina’s ambassador to Austria, and the country’s representative to international organisations based in Vienna, which is the home of the IAEA.
Despite the “gloom and despair” provoked by the situation in Iran, he cast doubt on whether the world was entering a new era of nuclear proliferation.
“History is not linear,” said Mr Grossi, arguing that just two years ago the world was far more worried about an “alarming” build-up of weapons in North Korea.
Mr Trump has held three meetings and exchanged warm words with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, but the commitments agreed so far have been vague and there have been no firm indications that Pyongyang has curbed its nuclear programme.
“These situations evolve and change,” Mr Grossi said. “We are not definitely going into an abyss, or to nirvana. International life is a bit more complex. But we need to make sure that we have all the elements for diplomacy, in every case, to avoid a terminal crisis.”
After Mr Grossi spoke to the FT, the US withdrew last Friday from a critical 1987 nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, blaming Moscow for refusing to destroy a missile that Washington and its Nato allies say violates the cold war-era pact. The US had spent six years urging Russia to return to compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Mr Grossi worked for more than 30 years at Argentina’s foreign ministry, where he specialised in non-proliferation and disarmament. He played a role in defusing a nuclear rivalry between Argentina and Brazil as democracy returned to both countries in the 1980s after bloody military dictatorships. A binational safeguards agency created in 1991, which turned their nuclear competition into co-operation, is seen as a model to follow.
“I saw what could have happened . . . Argentina could have evolved into a country with the potential to make nuclear weapons. The possibility of a nuclear arms race was real. It was no joke,” he said.
Mr Grossi said it would be “very logical to have an Argentine at the helm of the IAEA”, citing his country’s long-established nuclear sector and its record of exporting small reactors to countries including Australia and Egypt.
Although he insisted he was “not a lobbyist” for the nuclear power sector, he said it could play an important role in helping to reduce carbon emissions in line with the 2016 Paris climate agreement.