One of the most fascinating art forms in geopolitics and the spy world has got to be the IAEA dance with the Mossad and Iran.
In the last few years the IAEA’s approach to the Mossad and Iran has gone through at least three renditions: from “hear no evil, see no evil” to a readiness for confrontation to last week’s transition to some kind of a middle path.
In January 2018, the Mossad raided Iran’s secret nuclear archives, an operation announced to the world with unprecedented fanfare in April 2018.
This operation quickly put the IAEA, then led by director-general Yukiya Amano in an incredibly awkward position.
Amano’s legacy was wrapped up in the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran and the ongoing inspection team he had policing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities.
The former IAEA director-general had also signed off in 2015 on the idea that the Islamic Republic had come clean enough on past “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear program.
Suddenly, the Mossad was producing for the IAEA and for the general public not hearsay, but primary evidence, actual physical volumes of Iranian nuclear documents which proved otherwise.
If that was not enough, the Mossad used the nuclear documents it appropriated to check out other nuclear sites in Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in September 2018 that Israel had found nuclear violations at Turquzabad and a year later he announced it had found violations in Abadeh.
The IAEA had no choice but to follow-up on the many blatant Iranian nuclear violations of Amano’s prized 2015 deal.
But the goal of the IAEA’s work at that time was to find a way to maintain the deal.
That meant the IAEA did not even bother to inspect Turquzabad until April 2019, six months after Netanyahu’s announcement.
Anytime Amano was questioned about this he said that the IAEA needed to take its time to extensively verify any information provided by third parties, and could not just suddenly swoop down into new areas for inspection without a comprehensive process.
Translation: He hoped the Iranians would remove anything that he would have to report that would set off alarm bells – though Tehran had actually been caught on satellite feeds burning probably much nuclear material in the summer of 2018.
This very slow dance between the Mossad, the IAEA and Iran continued throughout Amano’s term until his unexpected death in July 2019 and even beyond, until current IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi took over his job in December 2019.
If Amano preferred a slow pace, Grossi’s instincts and high personal energy got the IAEA to start operating at a far faster pace.
He immediately started to confront the Islamic Republic both directly and in public statements to apply pressure to resolve questions about its undeclared nuclear activities revealed by the Mossad.
Though the ayatollahs tried to complain that it was wrong for the IAEA to take sides and accept the Mossad information as valid over their denials, Grossi was unwilling to look at a red light and pretend it was green.
He knew what the Mossad had brought him and was not going to stick his head in the sand.
The new IAEA director-general won plaudits from Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen, Mossad Director Yossi Cohen and former CIA officials.
In June 2020, Grossi even succeeded in getting the IAEA Board of Governors to condemn Iran’s lack of cooperation – the first such condemnations since before the 2015 deal.
In August 2020, he finally got access to the disputed sites and obtained new and more detailed explanations from Tehran regarding the nuclear deviations.
At this point, Grossi started a new dance with Iran and the Mossad – something in between Amano’s willingness to look the other way, even if a smoking gun sat on his desk, and Grossi’s own readiness for conflict when he started off.
The new dance meant claiming there was positive engagement to avoid a crisis which would give the Trump administration a pretext for attacking the Islamic Republic, while repeatedly and publicly discrediting aspects of Iran’s explanations.
He coined the phrase “not technically credible” to soften the blow that would have fallen if he had called the ayatollahs liars.
This seems to be where Grossi finds himself now.
Only a few weeks ago he held a victorious press conference, announcing that instead of ending all cooperation with the IAEA over disputes with the US over sanctions, Iran would “only” reduce its cooperation to around 70% of normal inspections.
Last week, Grossi spoke via Zoom to a group of mostly Harvard students.
This kind of group is where the very gregarious Grossi feels most comfortable and gives less formal and homogenized answers.
He used phrases like “they [the Iranians] won’t come clean” and “they tell us very little…that is the problem” in addressing Tehran’s explanation of undeclared nuclear items discovered by the Mossad (careful never to use its name.)
The IAEA chief even volunteered that he had made a proposal to Iran to resolve the issues, but when students asked what the proposal was, he smiled broadly and admitted it was nothing more concrete than “let’s talk.”
Shortly after speaking to Harvard students, he held a much more formal press conference where he was questioned repeatedly about evidence he received from the Israeli spy agency.
He responded, “There is an urban myth that we get information and I send inspectors running to check whether it is true or not. When we act on something like that, it’s when we have credible indications.”
Now Grossi was trying to put as much as distance as he could between himself and evidence that everyone knows he got from the Mossad.
The IAEA was back to not angering Iran and keeping its leaders calm enough to not limit inspections.
All of this was part of a dual announcement that the IAEA Board of Governors was backing down from condemning the Islamic Republic, and its failure to clarify its violations, in exchange for…more talks in April.“It’s about opening doors…preventing doors from shutting,” said Grossi.
Asked in several different ways by journalists whether he was just engaging in “wishful thinking” given that Tehran was not giving any concrete sign that it would change its tune, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I am an optimist.”
Though tougher on Iran than Amano, Grossi has realized that the critical issue for him is to keep the dance going. To do that he cannot get tied down to the Mossad or force a crisis with Iran to get the Islamic Republic to give real answers to the violations which the spy agency uncovered.