IAEA plans technical talks with Iran in April

04 March 2021

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), today announced a new agreement with Tehran for a face-to-face meeting between technical experts to take place early next month. At a press conference convened at short notice and live-streamed from the IAEA's headquarters in Vienna, Grossi said the aim of the agreement is for the agency and Iran to stop "talking past each other". 

The IAEA director general at the press briefing on Iran today

Though he did not say what the outstanding technical issues were, he said some of the answers the IAEA had received from Iran 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 to the 'temporary bilateral technical understanding' agreed last month. This 90-day understanding is already in force.

Unveiling that understanding, on 22 February, the IAEA and the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) confirmed that Iran will stop the implementation of the voluntary measures as envisaged in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA). This was on the eve of the entry into force of an Iranian law, Strategic Action to Cease Actions and Protect the Interests of the Iranian Nation.

Intensive talks

Grossi said today: "As a result of very intensive consultations I have had with Iran, Iran has finally welcomed and accepted my initiative to engage in a focused and systematic effort aimed at attempting to clarify a number of outstanding issues that have to do with different things - the presence of uranium particles, doubts about certain materials that exist in Iran, which were not declared before - and that we have been discussing for quite a long time.

"When I returned from my last trip to Tehran, I told you that I had raised these issues directly with the foreign minister, [Mohammad Javad] Zarif, and the president of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, Dr [Ali Akbar] Salehi, indicating that it would be important if 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."

This agreement was achieved this week, Grossi said, after he raised these issues again with Tehran and with officials from Iran's Permanent Mission to the United Nations and other International Organisations in Vienna.

"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. We have to start the process and see how far we can go. My intention is to try and come to a satisfactory outcome for all of this in time for the next regular session of the IAEA Board of Governors in June. But, of course, this is my intention, and we have to roll up our sleeves and start work."

The Board of Governors has just welcomed this new agreement between Iran and the IAEA, he said, and was "encouraged by this development".

Additional Protocol

This latest agreement is not connected to the Additional Protocol, Grossi said: "The provisional application of the Additional Protocol, or the suspension of it, is something different and to do with the way we interact with Iran and the kinds of authorities that we have. This thing is about some very concrete cases that we have and which we have not been able to clarify up until now. I proposed this initiative and they agreed that we should sit down at the technical level, in Tehran, and start looking into them one by one."

Asked whether he had reached this agreement in order to avoid the Board of Governors issuing a statement "in fear of retaliation from Iran", Grossi said: "Have I done this to avoid something else? No, I've done this because it is my job, to clarify everything that is outstanding, which is open. The results, or the consequences of our actions, is of course 'in the eye of the beholder', and there can be many interpretations, but what we had was in this case a very serious set of questions that justified a separate report from me to the Board."

He could not give details on who exactly would attend the April meeting, other than it would comprise "experts at the technical level", and that a meeting between him and Salehi might be held "eventually, later on."

Technical issues

The list of outstanding technical issues has 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. We're going to sit down and see how we do this technically."

Asked how this approach will be different from the IAEA's usual process, he said, "Let's say that in the normal interactions between a country and the Secretariat, there are many ways in which we should try to solve issues when there are doubts. There is one which is more formal, whereby we send a communication to a country indicating that there is a question and we are requesting information. In most cases with countries, and including Iran, we receive information, this is analysed by our safeguards experts and analysts, perhaps there is a new question, and then we conclude the issue. In this case, what I saw is that these exchanges were like talking past each other. We said we had found these things, asked why they were there, and what we got were 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."

Asked what the timeline for this new agreement was, he said, "as soon as I can" in order to have a final outcome for him to report back to the Board of Governors in June. "With this kind of process, where we have to discuss difficult matters, I’d rather set a timeline that is notional. I'm clearly aiming at having a far more clear understanding of these issues by the summer, or before. I think this is not impossible. We have information we want to compare with that of our Iranian counterparts. We have a few questions to put to them. And, if there is goodwill, then I'm sure we will be in a much better place. This is my aspiration."

He stressed that the agreement is "in parallel to" the temporary bilateral technical understanding struck with Iran, "which is in force and will continue hopefully for 90 days, or until there is, if there is, a political agreement, and maybe it will change in its nature".

Clarify the situation

The new agreement is "something very positive", he said, as "a concrete way to solve a family of issues that is proving quite intractable".

"In terms of our work to clarify the situation, in terms of our non-proliferation efforts, it is clearly a gain that we are achieving. For me, 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."

Asked how he could move forward without a political agreement, 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, though which these issues can be solved, hopefully."

On whether Iran had suspended its production of uranium metal, he said he had informed the Board of Governors about the production of "a small quantity". He added: "We haven't seen any new information, we don’t have any additional information about that. If and when we do, we will promptly inform everybody about it."


The "external consequences" of the steps the IAEA has taken with Iran, are open to interpretation, he said, but things are 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."

He added: "These are different parts of a single whole, where you have on the one hand what is going on at the level of the JCPoA, and at the same time what happened with the new law, and the way we have dealt with it through the technical understanding. But 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."

Grossi encouraged the reporters not to see the new agreement as an attempt to resolve issues presented in the IAEA's assessment of Iran in 2015, prior to the signing of the JCPoA.

"I leave those past documents and this is not attached to that. It is the same country, it is the issues that have been there floating around and, as I have said, there is new information coming, we have new capabilities, and we are looking into them. But please don’t see this as a way to change, to perfect or otherwise, what was said in the past. As I always say, non-proliferation is a constant issue. There is no definitive declaration that everything is in order. One has to show - and not only with Iran, but with every country - that everything is in order. It's an effort and it's going to be very difficult and now comes the hard part."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News