UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. nuclear chief said Monday he asked to meet Iran’s president on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly to try to reverse Tehran’s uncalled for” ban on “a very sizable chunk” of the agency’s inspectors.
Rafael Grossi stressed that the Iranian government’s removal of many agency cameras and electronic monitoring systems installed by the International Atomic Energy Agency also make it impossible to give assurances about the country’s nuclear program.
Grossi said he wrote to President Ebrahim Raisi telling him it is “very important” to meet about Tehran’s targeting of inspectors, including “some of the best and most experienced.”
“I’m waiting for an answer,” Grossi said in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday.
He also warned that escalating fighting is increasing the danger of a nuclear accident at Europe’s largest nuclear plant in Ukraine. Grossi said he is seeking to re-establish a dialogue with North Korea, which expelled U.N. nuclear weapons inspectors in 2009.
And he invited China to see how the IAEA tests treated water released from Japan’s Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant, which led Beijing to ban Japanese seafood.
The IAEA chief said Iran has the right to determine who enters the country, but he said he didn’t understand why Tehran was withdrawing authorization for a “good number” of inspectors, which is “making my job much more difficult.” He called it a step in the wrong direction.
“It’s very difficult to get the expertise to go to very sophisticated uranium enrichment facilities with thousands of (centrifuge) cascades, lots of tubing and piping, and it requires … a lot of experience,” he explained. “So, when you start limiting that … I have to say, this is not good. Stop it!”
Iran has denied impeding the work of IAEA inspectors though it has also been years since its experts have been able to examine surveillance footage.
The Vienna-based IAEA reported earlier this month that Iran had slowed the pace of enriching uranium to nearly weapons-grade levels. That was seen as a sign that Tehran was trying to ease tensions after years of strain with the United States, and one that took place as the rivals were negotiating a prisoner swap and the release of billions in frozen Iranian assets — which all took place Monday.
Since Iran started limiting the actions of IAEA inspectors a little over a year ago, Grossi said, the agency hasn’t been able to see how many centrifuges and parts needed to assemble them are being produced.
So when the IAEA has to draw a baseline of where Iran’s nuclear program is, he said, “How do I do it?”
Grossi said military operations are increasing near Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is on the front line of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The June 6 destruction of the Kakhovka Dam in Russian-controlled territory led to deadly flooding, ruined crops in one of the world’s breadbaskets and lowered the level of water used to cool Zaporizhzhia’s reactors.
“Complications are adding up,” Grossi said, “and making the safety of the plant very, very fragile.”
Initially he said he urged both sides to adopt a no-fire zone outside the plant. That became impossible. So he has been urging the Ukrainians and Russians not to attack any nuclear plant.
Zaporizhzhia is in a Russian-controlled area but is staffed mainly by Ukrainians. There are also some Russian experts and IAEA inspectors who from time to time have acted as “a buffer” and defused some tense situations, Grossi said.
The IAEA chief called North Korea’s growing nuclear program “one of the most difficult issues we have in front of us.” Since the expulsion of IAEA inspectors in 2009, Grossi said, the agency has followed what Pyongyang has done from afar. “North Korea has become a de facto nuclear weapon possessor state,” he said, and that is “not a good development.”
Grossi said North Korea’s program, including enrichment and construction of new reactors, has been growing without international monitoring or assessment of its safety. He wouldn’t say who the IAEA is engaging with to try to “turn the page” with North Korea but did say: “I am optimistic.”
As for China’s concerns about the water being discharged from Japan’s Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant, Grossi said IAEA daily monitoring shows the level of tritium, a radionucleide that could be problematic, is extremely low.
The IAEA chief said South Korea also had concerns about the water being discharged from Fukushima, which was damaged by a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011. He said he spoke to the president and foreign minister, and South Korea sent experts to see how the monitoring of the discharged water is being carried out.
Grossi said he wrote to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi a few days ago making a similar offer to explain the IAEA’s activities. He expressed hope that he could meet Wang in New York “to dispel doubts.” Said Grossi: “I’m eager and available.”
Edith M. Lederer, chief U.N. correspondent for the AP, has been covering international affairs for more than 50 years.