UN nuke watchdog chief in Iran: Any military attack on a nuclear facility is illegal

IAEA head Grossi makes comment initially in reference to Ukraine, but says it applies around the world; hails ‘constructive’ Iran meetings paving way for ‘important agreements’

Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Mohammad Eslami (R) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi hold a press conference in Tehran on March 4, 2023. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)
Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Mohammad Eslami (R) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi hold a press conference in Tehran on March 4, 2023. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

The UN nuclear watchdog chief said Saturday after meetings with Iranian officials in Tehran that any military attack on a nuclear facility was illegal.

Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Grossi was initially referring to Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia plant, which has come under repeated attack amid the Russian invasion, with Moscow receiving increasing military backing from Tehran.

However, asked about threats by Israel and the United States to target Iran’s nuclear sites, Grossi said that the principle stood for all nuclear facilities around the world.

“I think any attack, any military attack on a nuclear facility is outlaw [sic], is out of the normative structures that we all abide by,” Grossi said at a press conference in Tehran.

“We certainly hope that we are going to be able to protect the nuclear power plant which is under threat now, which is [Ukraine’s] Zaporizhzhia,” Grossi said. “But this is valid and applicable to every nuclear facility in the world.”

Israel is suspected of launching a series of attacks on Iranian nuclear and military sites, including an April 2021 assault on the underground Natanz facility that damaged its centrifuges. In 2020, Iran blamed Israel for a sophisticated attack that killed its top military nuclear scientist.

International Atomic Energy Organization, IAEA, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, right, speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, left, during a round of talks, in Tehran, Saturday, March 4, 2023. (AP Photo)

Grossi said Saturday he had “constructive” meetings with Iranian officials in Tehran after the discovery of uranium particles enriched to near weapons-grade level.

The two-day visit by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) comes as the Vienna-based organization seeks greater cooperation with Iran over its nuclear activities.

“By having a constructive discussion… and having good agreements, like I am sure we are going to have, we are going to be paving the way for important agreements,” Rafael Grossi told a news conference alongside Iran’s top nuclear official Mohammad Eslami.

Grossi arrived in Iran on Friday amid deadlock in negotiations on reviving a landmark 2015 accord on Iran’s nuclear activity, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

A diplomatic source told AFP the IAEA chief would meet Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during his trip to “relaunch the dialogue” on Iran’s atomic work and to “reset the relationship at the highest level.”

Grossi had made clear “that he was only prepared to go to Tehran if he had an invitation to speak with the president,” the source added.

Uranium particles enriched up to 83.7 percent — just under the 90% needed to produce an atomic bomb — had been detected at Iran’s underground Fordo plant about 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of the capital, according to a confidential IAEA report seen by AFP this week.

Tehran denies wanting to acquire atomic weapons, and said it had not made any attempt to enrich uranium beyond 60% purity.

Iran’s government noted that “unintended fluctuations… may have occurred” during the enrichment process.

The discovery came after Iran had substantially modified an interconnection between two centrifuge clusters enriching uranium, without declaring it to the IAEA.

This December 11, 2020, satellite photo by Maxar Technologies shows construction at Iran’s Fordo nuclear facility. Iran has begun construction on a site at its underground nuclear facility at Fordo amid tensions with the US over its atomic program (Maxar Technologies via AP)

The explanation from Iran, however, likely won’t be enough to satisfy Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened military actions against Tehran, and Israel and Iran have been engaged in a high-stakes shadow war across the wider Middle East since the nuclear deal’s collapse.


Grossi was greeted Friday at Mehrabad International Airport by Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, and later met with the agency’s chief Eslami.

At the joint press conference on Saturday, Eslami called for other signatories of the 2015 deal to fulfill their “obligations.”

International Atomic Energy Organization, IAEA, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, right, arrives for a meeting with head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Mohammad Eslami as he is welcomed by the spokesman for Iran’s atomic agency Behrouz Kamalvandi in Tehran, March 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

“Three European and some other countries are just focusing on Iran’s JCPOA obligations,” he told the news conference. “They too have obligations that they need to adhere to.”

“We came to an arrangement [with Grossi] to define our cooperation within the framework of the safeguards” on nuclear activity.

Grossi met later on Saturday with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, official news agency IRNA reported.

Iran’s top diplomat earlier told CNN that “the window for an agreement on negotiations to lift sanctions is still open, but this window will not be open forever.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addresses lawmakers while defending his next year’s budget bill at the parliament in Tehran, Iran, January 22, 2023. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

During the visit, the IAEA director general aimed to secure “more access to the [Fordo] site, more inspections,” the diplomatic source said.

France, a signatory to the 2015 deal that promised Iran relief from biting economic sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear activities, described the new enrichment development on Thursday as “unprecedented and extremely serious.”

‘Greater cooperation’

The restrictions set out in the deal, including the 3.67% enrichment threshold, were intended to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

The United States unilaterally withdrew from the pact in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump and reimposed sanctions, prompting Iran to suspend the implementation of its own commitments.

Negotiations aimed at reviving the deal started in 2021 but have been stalled since last year.

In December, video surfaced in which US President Joe Biden said the multilateral agreement with Iran was “dead,” but that he would not announce this publicly,

Grossi’s visit is being seen in Iran as another indication that a dialogue-based approach to resolving the nuclear standoff is possible.

“It is hoped that this trip will form the basis for greater cooperation and a clearer horizon between Iran and the IAEA,” Kamalvandi said ahead of Grossi’s arrival.

A student looks at Iran’s domestically built centrifuges in an exhibition of the country’s nuclear achievements, in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 8, 2023. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

Depending on the outcome of Grossi’s trip, the US as well as Britain, France and Germany will decide whether to submit a draft resolution censuring Iran to the IAEA board of governors, which is due to convene next week in Vienna.

In November 2022, Western nations criticized Iran for its lack of cooperation after traces of enriched uranium were found at three undeclared sites.

Grossi last visited Iran in early March 2022, in a trip that was focused on the sites.

The IAEA said Grossi would hold a news conference upon his return to Vienna late Saturday afternoon.

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