Meet IAEA chief Rafael Grossi: The man central to the Iran nuclear issue

Is one man more important than the US, EU and Israel on the Iran nuclear issue?

 INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC Energy Agency director-general Rafael Grossi at an IAEA Board of Governors meeting in Vienna, September 13. (photo credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)
INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC Energy Agency director-general Rafael Grossi at an IAEA Board of Governors meeting in Vienna, September 13.
(photo credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

One does not associate a gregarious person with a broad friendly smile planted on his face and who uses colorful metaphors and threats as the planet’s chief inspector for blocking the spread of nuclear weapons.

Yukiya Amano, the International Atomic Energy Agency director-general from December 2009 until his death in July 2019, was more what one might expect: professorial, dignified, a decent amount of frowning and poker faces and an endless patience for confusing diplomatic speak that did not say or give away too much.

And yet, it is the extroverted, upbeat and perpetually self-proclaimed “optimist” Rafael Grossi who succeeded Amano and has run the agency since December 2019 and who is one of the single most important players in determining the nuclear standoff between Iran and the US and Israel.

Former Mossad director Yossi Cohen, former intelligence minister Eli Cohen and former CIA officials, who have worked directly with Grossi (and Cohen also worked with Amano), have broadly given the Magazine a positive review on his highly influential tenure.

Any time there has been a nuclear crisis with Iran in the last two years, Grossi has been at the center of resolving it.

Whenever there has been pressure on the Islamic Republic because of new reports of it jumping forward close toward a nuclear weapon, Grossi and his agency have been the source for the new estimates and scary nuclear breakout timeline scenarios.

The periods when Tehran was hit most hard, repeatedly (reportedly by the Mossad) at Natanz and other nuclear facilities, were all when the ayatollahs’ nuclear violations were being called out by Grossi in public.

All of this despite the fact that often the IAEA is thought of mainly as a technical organization that stays out of the grand game of geopolitical battles and standoffs.

 MEETING WITH Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in Tehran, November 23.  (credit:  MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS) MEETING WITH Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in Tehran, November 23. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

What have been the key dramatic points of his term and where are things going with his future impact on the Iran nuclear issue?

BEFORE WE understand Grossi’s significance, we need to understand the legacy he took over from Amano.

Amano preferred a slow pace to everything, which led the IAEA to drag out following up on the Mossad’s 2018 heist of Iran’s nuclear archives for around a year.

In contrast, Grossi’s instincts and high personal energy got the IAEA to start operating at a much faster pace.

Grossi was born in Buenos Aires in 1961 and joined Argentina’s foreign service in 1985. 

He became IAEA chief of staff under agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei from 2002-2007. During this period, Grossi was involved in nuclear negotiations with both North Korea and Iran. This included helping reach his first temporary nuclear freeze deal with the Islamic Republic – something that would come in handy more than a decade later.

From 2010-2013, he served as IAEA deputy director-general.

Grossi was set to serve as president of the major 2020 Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Review Conference until Amano suddenly died on July 18, 2019.

After Grossi won the race against Amano’s most current chief of staff, he became the new agency head on December 3, 2019.

Grossi confronts Iran over Mossad-seized nuclear archives

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 push back that it was wrong for the IAEA to take sides and accept the Mossad information as valid over their denials, Grossi was made of different material than his predecessors. He 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.

Grossi publicly pressed Iran on the issue both on December 3, 2019, calling its answers to date unsatisfactory, and again on February 5, 2020.

In his February 5, 2020 statement, Grossi hinted at confronting Iran soon, emphasizing the need for states to provide “the necessary support when moments of difficulty come” since he soon “may have to ask Iran to do the right thing.”

Grossi again pressed Iran in public statements a few days later on February 10.

On March 3, 2020, Grossi reported for the first time that Iran had far exceeded the low enriched uranium threshold for a nuclear bomb.

This was an explosive report that gave Israel and others significantly more ammunition to demand the world powers escalate the pressure on Iran.

In addition, Grossi said, “The fact that we found traces [of uranium] is very important. That means there is the possibility of nuclear activities and material that are not under international supervision and about which we know not the origin or the intent.

“That worries me,” added the new no-nonsense IAEA chief who knew how to ditch the diplomatic speak and make headlines to up the pressure.

Those were fighting words coming from the normally “no drama” IAEA.

Grossi’s predecessor, Amano, whose legacy was tied to keeping the 2015 Iran nuclear deal intact, had done all he could to avoid public conflict with Tehran.

Not Grossi.

In early June 2020, an IAEA report was leaked that Iran had jumped around another 500 kg. in enriched uranium in three months. It noted that they could probably have enough low-enriched uranium for two nuclear weapons within three months.

The new IAEA director-general won plaudits from then-Israeli intelligence minister Eli Cohen in prior interviews with the Magazine, as well as from then-Mossad director Yossi Cohen and former CIA officials for pressing Iran during this period.

In June 2020, Grossi even succeeded at getting the IAEA Board of Governors to condemn Iran’s lack of cooperation – the first such condemnations since before the 2015 deal.

Within days of that condemnation, installations across Iran started exploding left and right.

Foreign sources have indicated that the Mossad was involved in at least some of these explosions, most importantly the attack on the critical Natanz nuclear facility.

Few debate that the IAEA’s condemnation of Iran was a vital factor in giving the necessary legitimacy for these attacks.

Not long after yet another of the more than 10 explosions, in August 2020, Grossi finally got access to the disputed sites and more detailed explanation 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 and Grossi’s own initial readiness for conflict.

‘Not technically credible’ and desperately trying to hold things together

The new dance meant claiming there was positive engagement to avoid a crisis that would give the Trump administration a pretext for attacking the Islamic Republic, while simultaneously repeatedly publicly discrediting aspects of Iran’s explanations.

Grossi coined the phrase “not technically credible” to soften the blow for calling the ayatollahs liars.

The situation stabilized and remained somewhat frozen in wait for Joe Biden to replace Donald Trump as the next US president.

This was where Grossi found himself in a crucial period in early 2021 when Iran announced it was withdrawing from the Additional Protocol regarding nuclear inspections.

On February 22, 2021, Grossi held a victorious and almost exuberant 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.

Grossi told the world he had reached a “temporary, technical understanding” with Iranian officials for three months so that his inspectors would not be “flying blind” on its nuclear program.

He made the announcement in an extraordinary press conference in the middle of the night between that Sunday and Monday.

What deal did he reach following Iran’s withdrawal from what is known as the nuclear “Additional Protocol” requirement?

He told reporters not a single IAEA inspector would be withdrawn from the Islamic Republic.

The constant electronic monitoring would continue, and from his perspective, the full “necessary degree of monitoring and verification” activities would remain in place.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said with his country’s withdrawal from the Additional Protocol inspection requirements, cooperation with the IAEA would be reduced by 20%-30%.

In classic diplomatic speak designed to soften Iran despite its readiness to concede some things to Grossi, he acknowledged that a law passed by Iran’s parliament to reduce cooperation “exists.”

The understanding he had reached with Iran was “not a replacement,” and he hoped for a “return to a fuller thing.”

What was the purpose of these seemingly contradictory and paradoxical comments?

The truth was that at that time Grossi got everything he wanted.

He needed to help Iran save face so that it could portray itself as penalizing the US for ongoing sanctions – without actually changing anything of significance.

After all, if every single IAEA inspector continued to work in Iran, all constant electronic monitoring continued and snap inspections were allowed, what exactly was the mysterious 20%-30% that was cut back?

To help save face, the heart of Grossi’s creative deal was to not make an issue over Iran’s provocative pull out of the Additional Protocol because the ayatollahs had agreed to do everything important the document required on a voluntary, quieter basis.

Finally, the other key provision was the three months, which meant slightly before Iran’s presidential election was waiting in the wind in June.

Some credited Grossi with creating momentum for the return to nuclear talks in April 2021.

After the victorious middle of the night press conference, 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 formalistic and homogenized answers.

He used phrases like asking “why 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 pressed by students what the proposal was, he admitted it was nothing more concrete than “let’s talk,” he said with his signature broad smile.

Iran pushes Grossi around

Shortly after speaking to Harvard, on March 9, 2021, he and the IAEA Board of Governors signaled they were backing down from condemning the Islamic Republic with 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 had realized by March 2021 that the critical issue for him was to keep the dance going.

In addition, Grossi again gave Israel and other Iran critics momentum to demand a more aggressive approach by the West by issuing his April 2021 report emphasizing that the Islamic Republic had started to enrich uranium to the 60% level. This was the closest Tehran had ever gotten to the bomb and was only one step below the 90% weaponized level.

These were possibly one of Grossi’s last high points in 2021, with the three-month deadline coming back to haunt him.

On May 24, 2021, Grossi announced that he had reached a weaker deal with Iran extending inspections for only one month.

The dizzying days leading up to the May 24 announcement were as dramatic as the deal itself.

The press conference, on a Monday afternoon, had been delayed three times since that Sunday afternoon, as Grossi resolved certain unspecified last-minute concerns from the Islamic Republic.

All of the developments were even more significant because the IAEA’s right to inspect Iran’s nuclear program had expired on Friday, May 21 the week before. Some senior Iranian officials had suggested that IAEA inspections would not be extended – a potential prelude to a major crisis.

Grossi had first announced that he would hold a press conference Sunday afternoon to update the world on the status of inspections, and as Iran, the US and world powers entered a critical week of negotiations to return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Following multiple contradictory public statements, the IAEA delayed its press conference, which had been set for 3 p.m. Israel time Sunday, saying there would be an announcement at an undetermined point later in the day.

Yet several hours later, the IAEA amended its position again, saying it would only make an announcement on Monday. 

When Grossi finally announced the one-month extension of IAEA inspections, he warned there could be negative implications for inspections if a nuclear deal was not reached by the world powers by the new deadline of June 24, 2021.

At the same time, he said he was not concerned that a new Iranian president after June 18 would undermine cooperation with the IAEA.

This last comment and prediction by Grossi turned out to be badly mistaken, with massive implications for the rest of 2021 and continuing into 2022.

By June 16, 2021, Grossi was finally acknowledging that further attempts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear accord would have to await the formation of a new Iranian government.

This change was an example of rhetorical whiplash after only slightly earlier in June saying a deal must be struck imminently, or time would run out.

The crisis got worse before it got better.

On June 23, Iran’s Karaj nuclear facility was attacked by a drone, allegedly again by the Mossad. 

Following this attack, Iran cut off all access to Karaj, some other aspects of inspections and notified the IAEA that the attack had destroyed one of its cameras and that Iran had disabled and confiscated the other cameras as part of a probe into the incident.

The IAEA chief experienced additional rhetorical whiplash on September 12 when he notified the world that he had resolved the crisis and would receive renewed access to Karaj, only to report on September 26 that the ayatollahs had reneged on the deal.

Grossi strikes back

This set Grossi and Iran back on a collision course, which almost culminated in a December IAEA Board of Governors condemnation and referral to the UN Security Council for a potential snapback of the worldwide sanctions.

But by December 15, the pressure that Grossi had rallied against Iran led to a real deal, and by December 19, it had backed down and renewed access to the Karaj facility as well as reinstating most inspection activities.

Spokesman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Behrouz Kamalvandi tried to spin Iran’s giving in, saying the UN nuclear watchdog would reinstall cameras at Karaj in the next few days after meeting Tehran’s conditions.

Tehran had demanded to examine the cameras before they were reinstalled in order to assuage their concerns about spying, in light of the sabotage of Karaj in June.

However, Grossi, on December 17, preempted this condition. For the first time, he displayed to the media in detail a sample IAEA camera.

The stunning press session, almost like a “How Do IAEA Cameras Work and Look 101” appeared directed at Iranian claims that the cameras can be hacked and used to spy on them. “Cyberattack is not possible” he said, noting that the camera is “not connected” to a general network or computer.

Further, he said the cameras are standard IAEA-issue and that there are 1,000-2,000 such cameras being used by the agency worldwide.

As usual, this did not mean Grossi got everything he wanted. At that Friday press conference, the director-general had to push back on questions that he had not achieved sufficient restoration of monitoring of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

At the same time, he continued to distinguish himself from his predecessors with his frank acknowledgment about the pieces missing from his new deal with Tehran and said he is working on resolving those issues.

Grossi also pleased Iranian critics and broke diplomatic expectations, noting “we have doubts” about Iran’s explanations in which it blamed Mossad sabotage regarding losing footage that it has taken out of an allegedly destroyed camera that it has refused to turn over to the IAEA.

Some credited Grossi’s latest deal with getting the Iranians to also start to show some greater flexibility in the December nuclear talks in Vienna.

As the nuclear talks between Iran and the world powers hit a critical stage during the next few weeks (US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called the situation “urgent” last week), Grossi and his IAEA are technically not one of the parties making the decisions.

But behind the scenes, and sometimes out front, he has often either dominated or co-starred in the Iran nuclear storyline for the last two years as much as any of the world powers, Israel and Iran itself.