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Source: FT

Nov 30, 2023

Do not ignore Iran’s nuclear ambitions, warns UN atomic agency

Rafael Grossi says the world should not lose sight of the risks because attention has switched to war between Israel and Hamas

By Sarah White

 The head of the UN nuclear watchdog has urged world powers to relaunch talks with Iran and not lose sight of the risks posed by its stockpiling of enriched uranium while attention has turned to the war between Israel and Hamas.

“There needs to be some recreation of a system of dialogue with Iran,” Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the Financial Times. “Attention . . . may of course be on something else. But this doesn’t solve the issue. It may even make them more acute, in the sense that there’s a sense of a certain indifference,” Grossi said. 

“People may not be looking at [Iran’s nuclear ambitions], but the problem exists.” Tensions between Iran and the west have heightened since Hamas’s devastating October 7 attack on Israel triggered a war between the militant group and the Jewish state. Iran supports Hamas and backs multiple anti-Israel, anti-west militant groups across the region that have targeted Israel and US forces since the conflict erupted.

The war has upended efforts by the US government to de-escalate tensions with the Islamic republic as it sought to contain the nuclear crisis. In September, the US and Iran completed an exchange of prisoners after months of negotiations and Washington unfroze $6bn of Iranian oil funds held in South Korea. Alongside the prisoner swap deal, Tehran and Washington agreed to de-escalatory measures that some hoped could lay a platform for more talks on reducing Iran’s nuclear activity.

Those have been dashed by the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Grossi said talks with Iran might require a new framework, rather than an attempt to revive the 2015 accord — known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — that has floundered since the US abandoned it in 2018 under former president Donald Trump.

“Trying to put [a nuclear deal] back into the JCPOA box wouldn’t work,” Grossi said. “You can still call it a JCPOA but it should be a JCPOA 2.0 or something because you have to adapt.” He also said the situation surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme was “very uncertain” and urged nations to “sit down and re-engage”.

 Ayatollah Ali Khamenei views a model of a nuclear facility in Tehran. Iran is continuing to stockpile uranium enriched to nearly weapons grade, according to Rafael Grossi © Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA/Reuters

Iran has ramped up its nuclear activity since 2019 in response to the US exit from the JCPOA and the imposition of crippling sanctions on the Islamic republic. It is enriching uranium at its highest ever level, although Tehran has denied wanting nuclear arms. Tehran’s stockpiling of uranium enriched to nearly weapons grade was continuing, although it had slowed in recent months, Grossi added.

Iran’s stock of uranium enriched to up to 60 per cent, close to weapons grade, grew nearly 7kg from mid-August to the end of October, the latest IAEA reports showed, when it had been increasing at a pace of 15kg or more previously. US officials say Iran has the capacity to produce enough fissile material required to develop a nuclear weapon in about two weeks.

Grossi said other obstacles to the pursuit of nuclear talks with Iran included domestic distractions, pointing to “the political situation in individual countries” that was preventing some from fully engaging, without naming who he was referring to. Iran will hold parliamentary elections in March, while the US is due to hold a presidential election at the end of next year.

“We’re not asking for people to put pressure on Iran but to engage with us,” Grossi said. “For this thing to succeed there must be a minimum level of consensus in the international community . . . that Iran must really co-operate with us and that it’s not a good thing to have latent proliferation points.” Additional reporting by Andrew England in London

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