Argentinian Ambassador Rafael Grossi, who took charge of the International Atomic Energy Agency on 3 December 2019, is staring down the barrel at perhaps his agency’s most immanent challenge: managing re-emerging conflict in the IAEA Board of Governors over nuclear verification in Iran. The technical and political challenges of dealing with Iran at the IAEA have always been difficult, but now these are stoked by rivalry and conflict between Russia and the United States.
Grossi will convene his first board meeting as IAEA Director General the week of 9 March 2020. Looking toward and beyond that encounter, Grossi said during a public appearance at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington, D.C., on 5 February 2020, “There will be a time when I come… to Iran asking them to do the right thing: to work with the agency. And at that moment, not only just the subscribers [to the JCPOA] but other countries, especially in the Board of Governors, will have to stand with the agency. That is what I hope.”
Iran may or may not “do the right thing,” and how far the IAEA can go in pressuring Iran will be in large part be determined by US-Russian relations. At the level of high politics, what has been unfolding in the boardroom reflects growing tensions between two powerful IAEA member states; their different assessments of the international security threat posed by Iran; and Iran’s growing political and military influence in the Middle East. Geopolitics aside, tensions between the US and Russia also centre on nuclear verification; for about a decade Washington and Moscow have been drifting apart over how the IAEA is adapting its safeguards system to changes in the international nuclear landscape.