International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Rafael Mariano Grossi on 4 March told a press conference in Vienna that a new agreement had been reached with Iran for face-to-face meetings of technical experts to take place in early April. Grossi said the aim of the agreement is to tackle outstanding technical issues and for the agency and Iran to stop "talking past each other".
He noted that some of the answers the IAEA had received from Iran regarding its nuclear activities had not been "credible" and that he wanted to be able to submit a final report to the IAEA Board of Governors in June. He stressed that the new agreement would be run in parallel with the 90-day bilateral technical understanding agreed in February during his trip to Tehran, which is already in force.
Grossi’s February visit was prompted by the imminent implementation of a law passed by the Iranian parliament that would have effectively ended IAEA monitoring of Iran’s nuclear programme at a time when diplomacy was underway to try to bring the USA back into the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran the P5+1 group of countries (the USA, UK, France, Russia, and China plus Germany) under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear development in return for the lifting of sanctions. However, US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal and reimpose sanctions in 2018 prompted Iran to revive its nuclear programme while informing the IAEA of the steps being taken. The new Iranian law would have ended that communication. The temporary understanding allows limited IAEA monitoring to continue.
Grossi’s latest consultations with Iran came as France, the UK and Germany said they planned to introduce a resolution at a meeting of the IAEA board of governors criticising Iran’s suspension of some IAEA inspections. This had prompted Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Abbas Araqchi to insist that the only way to save the JCPOA was for the USA to first lift its sanctions. In the light of Grossi’s talks the three European states decided not to submit their resolution.
Grossi said Iran had finally welcomed and accepted his initiative to engage in focused and systematic efforts to try to clarify a number of outstanding issues including the presence of uranium particles at sites in Iran and doubts about certain materials which had not been declared. While in Tehran he had suggested that “we could try to go beyond the exchange of letters and messages, which seemed to me a lot like talking past each other, and try to tackle them and to solve them”.
He told the press conference: “Finally we were able to have an understanding and we are going to be starting this process of focused analysis of the situation, with a technical meeting, which will take place in Iran at the beginning of April, which I hope will be followed by other technical or political meetings, agreed by both sides.” He hoped the outstanding issued would be resolved in time for IAEA Board of Governors meeting in June.
The outstanding technical issues had not been ranked in terms of priorities, he said. "We haven't set any priority, or order, or sequence. We are going to be tackling all of them. Of course, in a rational process you start with something and follow with another, but I couldn't tell you now. We've just agreed to do it and, as you can imagine, the hard part starts now."
Groissi explained that the IAEA had asked Iran about the issues causing concern and had receied explanations that were not technically credible in some cases. “We asked the same question and we got the same answer." The new agreement is a way to get off this "merry-go-round", he said.
"What I said to our Iranian counterparts in Tehran is that I felt we needed to try to discuss this in a different way - to sit down round the table, as we have done in the past, with our technical findings, with our technical doubts and questions, and compare notes; to do it with a sense of solving them, instead of limiting ourselves to reiterating things. And I'm glad that this was welcomed and we shall see how far we can go, but it is different because we are trying to sit down and see if we can solve this once and for all."
The new agreement is "something very positive", he said, as "a concrete way to solve a family of issues that is proving quite intractable". He added: “It's about opening doors and preventing doors from shutting."
Asked whether there was contradiction between Iran blocking access to IAEA inspectors and a technical discussion in Tehran next month, and whether the new agreement was simply "wishful thinking" on his part, Grossi said: "I'm an optimistic person and professionally."
As to some wider political agreement about the JCPOA and the USA, he said: "I don't think I have the right to stop my work or to throw the towel in. It's my professional obligation to continue. I don’t know if there will be a solution to these matters this time around, but what we are doing is facilitating, we are opening technical channels. We are not at the political level; this is something to be seen by countries among themselves. What we are doing is offering technical avenues, through which these issues can be solved, hopefully."
He said things were moving forward. "It's obvious to everybody that all these matters need to have some resolution. When it comes to Iran, and I'm not saying anything that Iran itself has not said, everything is interconnected." This includes diplomacy at the level of the JCPOA, the new Iranian law, and the technical understanding. “We have this open issue, which has been there, reverberating, without a dedicated attempt to tackle it. In terms of results, we can be sceptical, but we are getting into this with a sense of purpose."