Will IAEA stick to August 1 ultimatum with Iran? - analysis

Nuclear agency responds to Post about ultimatums, Natanz.

A handout satellite image shows a general view of the Natanz nuclear facility after a fire, in Natanz, Iran July 8, 2020 (photo credit: MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
A handout satellite image shows a general view of the Natanz nuclear facility after a fire, in Natanz, Iran July 8, 2020
In mid-July, International Atomic Energy Agency director-general Rafael Grossi gave an unprecedented interview to The Wall Street Journal in which he essentially gave Iran an August 1 deadline to cooperate with three unresolved nuclear-program issues or face “bad” consequences.
“I keep insisting on the absolute necessity for us to resolve this issue very soon,” he said, adding that the issue would not just go away.
For the normally diplomatic and politically squeamish IAEA – whose purpose is inspections, not enforcement– these were beyond fighting words. Many observers said Grossi was setting the stage for referring the issue to the UN Security Council for a showdown.
So will there be a showdown, or will Grossi retreat from his tough stance?
If the issue went to the UNSC, on the table could be snapping back worldwide sanctions, extending the conventional arms embargo set to expire in October, or both.
Whatever would come out of the Security Council, which has enforcement powers that could be diluted by China and Russia, this would be a major embarrassment to the Islamic Republic and undermine its attempts to place blame for the nuclear standoff on America’s May 2018 decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal.
In multiple exchanges with The Jerusalem Post this week, given that July is almost over, an IAEA spokesman left the issue more ambiguous than Grossi’s public ultimatum.
Where did all of this come from?
In March, Grossi started to publicly accuse Iran of refusing access to two undeclared nuclear sites, as well as refusing to explain why the IAEA inspectors found undeclared nuclear fissile material at the Turquzabad nuclear site.
All of these issues were brought to the agency’s attention by the January 2018 Mossad raid of Iran’s secret nuclear archives.
When Tehran failed to cooperate in March, Grossi threatened the ayatollahs with slightly stronger language in June.
After Iran still ignored the agency’s director-general, the IAEA Board of Directors condemned it for its lack of cooperation for the first time since before the 2015 nuclear deal.
This was the context for Grossi’s end-of-July ultimatum.
For its part, the Islamic Republic has been threatening that if new measures are taken against it, it may cease allowing IAEA inspectors access to its declared nuclear facilities or leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
These threats may give Grossi pause, as signaled by an IAEA spokesman to the Post.
ASKED WHAT actions Grossi planned to take, given that Iran appears to have continued to ignore him, and his deadline is about to expire, an IAEA spokesman said: “In line with standard practice, director-general Grossi will report any relevant developments to the Board of Governors, as and when appropriate.”
Pressed that Grossi’s ultimatum in The Wall Street Journal interview was anything but standard – and that merely reporting developments to the Board of Governors sounded like Grossi was retreating to avoid escalating with Iran – the spokesman responded: “Discussions between the IAEA and Iran are continuing.”
It seems that either Grossi is hoping for lightning to strike in the 11th hour, or that the prospect of both escalation and retreat are so undesirable that he will not make a real decision about what to do until August 1.
Although the idea of reporting to the agency’s board could be a reference to the governors sending the issue to the UNSC, the subdued tone of the IAEA in the exchanges with the Post, along with statements by the EU-3 about trying to maintain the nuclear deal with Iran at all costs, suggest that a retreat or dead end for Grossi’s deadline is more likely.
For Israel, the IAEA’s confrontation with Iran has already changed the conversation by highlighting Tehran as a serial violator, as well as giving legitimacy to whomever has been causing explosions in Natanz and elsewhere over the last month.
Regarding Natanz, the IAEA confirmed to the Post that it is “conducting safeguards verification activities as before at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility” – despite the July 2 explosion that destroyed three-quarters of an adjacent facility that was the heart of Iran’s advanced centrifuge program for enriching uranium at a more brisk pace.
With all of the rising tensions, the expectation is still that there will be no game-changing actions before the November US presidential election.