Nuclear watchdog: “Essential” to have deal with Iran

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The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency tells "Axios on HBO" that it's "essential" to have a nuclear deal with Iran because otherwise "we are flying blind."

Driving the news: Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi sat down with "Axios on HBO" at IAEA headquarters in Vienna, ahead of Iran's June 18 presidential election and a June 24 extension on negotiations seeking to restore curtailed surveillance of Iranian nuclear sites and salvage the 2015 deal.

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  • The Biden administration wants to re-enter the deal but impose new restrictions. Iran, which has long insisted its nuclear program is peaceful, wants sanctions lifted without opening itself to broader limitations.

Flashback: Former President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal in 2018. Iran has since disclosed enriching uranium at levels that far exceed the deal's limits but technically fall below the 90% considered weapons-grade purity.

What they're saying: Asked whether he believes Iran has an active nuclear weapons program, Grossi responded: "No, there is no information indicating that at the moment."

  • But he raised concerns about Iran's stepped-up enrichment combined with the international community's reduced visibility in recent months.

  • "This is very serious," Grossi said. "When you enrich at 60%, you are very close. It's technically indistinguishable from weapon-grade material. So when you combine this with the fact that our inspection access is being curtailed, then I start to worry."

The big picture: Grossi also addressed North Korea; Israel's resistance to joining the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT); and the limits of what the IAEA knows about the programs of the U.S., Russia and other nuclear powers.

  • As for nuclear threats posed by hackers and criminals: "The reality is that the possibility of misuse of nuclear material is higher than of a nuclear war. ... We have growing alertness on this issue."

What's next: Since taking the helm in December 2019, Grossi has elevated the IAEA's visibility in global efforts to address climate change and pandemics, saying that's part of the agency's job.

  • "We have to look into everything nuclear science and technology can do for us ... climate change, societal issues. These are matters that you cannot simply go alone. We need these institutions of global cooperation because when we cooperate, we get good solutions. As simple as that."

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