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To talk to Putin or Iran, West turns to world nuclear inspectors

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Rafael Grossi sneaked into Moscow a few weeks ago and quietly met with a man most Westerners today have never met: Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

Mr Grossi, director general of the United Nations nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency, aimed to warn Mr Putin of the dangers of restarting too quickly the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, which is occupied by Russia. Russian troops have been stationed in Ukraine since shortly after it invaded Ukraine in 2022.

But as the two men spoke, the conversation turned to Putin’s statement that he was open to a negotiated solution to the war in Ukraine, but only if President Volodymyr Zelensky was prepared to give up nearly 20 percent of the country’s territory.

A few weeks later, Grossi, an Argentinian with a penchant for Italian suits, came to Tehran to talk with the country’s foreign minister and the head of the country’s civilian nuclear program. When senior Iranian officials suggested that a new confrontation with Israel could lead them to build a bomb, the Iranians said they were also willing to negotiate — and like Putin, they suspected Grossi would soon report details of his conversations to the White House.

In a new era of nuclear fear, Grossi suddenly found himself at the center of two of the world’s most critical geopolitical standoffs. In Ukraine, one of six nuclear reactors in the line of fire over the Dnieper River could be shelled and spew radiation. Iran is about to become a nuclear power.

“I’m an inspector, not a mediator,” Grossi said in an interview this week. “But maybe, in some way, I can be useful on the edge.”

After a 40-year diplomatic career focused on the nuts and bolts of nonproliferation, he was narrowly elected as the agency’s director general, not the role he expected. After the sudden death of his predecessor Yukiya Amano. “No one could have imagined that Europe’s largest nuclear power plant would be on the front lines of a war” or that Israel and Iran would launch a direct missile attack, 45 years after the Iranian revolution, he said in one of a series of talks at the agency’s Vienna headquarters. for the first time.

Today, he is perhaps the most active leader since the IAEA was founded in 1957 as an outgrowth of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program to spread nuclear power generation around the world. He has spent much of the past four and a half years traveling the globe, meeting with presidents and foreign ministers, pressing for greater access to nuclear facilities and often demanding more from an organization that has traditionally had little power to enforce compliance. that power.

But along the way, he became both a receiver and a sender of information, even negotiating a no-fire zone around Zaporizhia.

Grossi has faced criticism, some of whom believe he exceeded his authority by placing full-time inspectors at the troubled plant when armed Russians with little knowledge of nuclear power patrolled the control room. He also bet that neither side would be willing to attack the plant if it meant risking the lives of UN inspectors.

efficient. President Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan recalled that he was so worried about a nuclear disaster early in the conflict in Ukraine that he described to the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration in a phone call what would happen if the reactor was hit and the deadly radioactivity What happens to the cloud. Drifting across Europe. “It was a horrific scene,” he said later.

Two years later, “we are entering a period of long-term status quo,” Mr. Grossi said. “But I decided from the beginning that I couldn’t just sit back, wait for the war to be over, and then write a report on ‘lessons learned.’ That would be a disgrace to the organization.”

The IAEA was created to do two things: ensure the safety of nuclear power plants and prevent their fuel and waste from being secretly used to build nuclear weapons. Agency inspectors themselves do not search or count weapons, although many in Congress and around the world believe that is the agency’s job.

Mr. Grossi was born in 1961, four years after the agency was founded. He began his career in Argentina’s foreign ministry, but his real ambition was to run the International Atomic Energy Agency, with its vast network of trained inspectors responsible for global nuclear security. It’s a burning ambition.

“I feel like I’ve been preparing for this my whole life,” he said in 2020.

Many may wonder why. Traditionally, this kind of work requires lengthy meetings in boring conference rooms, careful measurements inside nuclear power plants, and the installation of tamper-proof cameras in critical facilities to ensure that nuclear materials are not diverted for bomb projects.

The work is stressful but usually not particularly dangerous.

So it was unusual when Grossi swapped his suit for a bulletproof vest and stepped out of an armored vehicle in southeastern Ukraine in late summer 2022, shells exploding in the distance. He rejected an offer from the Russians to escort him out of Russian territory. A highly visible U.N. official, he did not want to give credence to Moscow’s territorial claims.

Instead, he took a difficult route through Ukraine into a wasteland strewn with mines and destroyed vehicles. As he approached the factory, a Ukrainian guard stopped him, saying he could go no further and shrugging off the fact that Mr Zelensky had personally blessed the mission.

But after hours of arguing, Grossi ignored the guards and moved on, inspecting the plant and leaving a team of inspectors behind to put all but one of the reactors into cold shutdown.

Teams of UN inspectors have been rotating there every day since.

This is an intervention the agency has never undertaken before. But Mr Grossi said the situation called for a proactive approach. Mr Grossi said Europe’s largest nuclear facilities were “on the front lines”.

“Not around, or around,” he stressed. “exist front. “

A month after his first visit to the plant, Grossi traveled to St. Petersburg to meet directly with Putin, with plans suggesting that if continued shelling destroyed cooling systems or other critical facilities, Zaporozhye would be remembered as Putin’s Chernobyl. To illustrate the point, he wanted to remind Putin that given the prevailing winds, the radioactive cloud would likely spread to parts of Russia.

They met at a palace near the city where Putin had risen to political office. Putin was courteous to the chief nuclear inspector, clearly not wanting to be seen as obsessed with, or even particularly troubled by, the war.

When the pleasantries had ceased, Mr. Grossi got to the point. “I don’t need a complete ceasefire in the region,” he recalled telling the Russian leader. He just needs to reach a deal that guarantees that Putin’s troops will not open fire on the factory. “He didn’t disagree,” Grossi said days later. But he also made no promises.

He recalled that Putin did not seem confused or angry about what happened to his humiliated troops in Ukraine, or the failure of his plan to seize the entire country. Instead, Grossi noted, Russian leaders focused on the plant. He knew how many reactors there were and where the backup power was. It was as if he had memorized a map of the facilities in preparation for this meeting. “He knew every detail,” Mr. Grossi said. “It’s kind of remarkable.”

For Putin, Zaporozhye is more than just a trophy. It was a key part of his plan to take control of all of Ukraine and help intimidate or blackmail much of Europe.

When Grossi met with Putin again in Moscow earlier this spring, he found the Russian leader in a good mood. He is preoccupied with plans to restart the plant and thereby assert Russian control over the region, which Russia claims has now been annexed. Grossi tried to dissuade him from taking this action, given the “fragility of the situation.” But Putin said Russia “will definitely start over”.

The conversation then turned to whether there could be a negotiated settlement to the war. Putin knows that everything he says will reach Washington. “I think it’s a great pity,” Grossi said a few days later, “that I am the only one who talks to both Russia and the United States.”

Dealing with Iran’s leadership is more nuanced and in many ways more fraught than feuding with Putin. The Iranians began dismantling cameras at critical fuel production facilities two years ago, shortly after the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors passed a resolution condemning Tehran’s government for failing to answer the agency’s questions about suspected nuclear activity.

At the time, Mr. Grossi said that if the cameras were not working for about six months, he would not be able to guarantee that the fuel had not been diverted to other projects, including weapons projects. That was 18 months ago, and since then Iran’s parliament has passed a law banning certain forms of cooperation with agency inspectors. At the same time, the country is steadily enriching uranium to 60 percent purity—dangerously close to the purity needed to produce a bomb.

Some experts estimate that Mr. Grossi has also been barred from visiting a massive new centrifuge factory that Iran is building in Natanz, more than 1,200 feet below the desert surface. Tehran says it is working to ensure the new facility is not vulnerable to Israeli or U.S. bombing and insists the International Atomic Energy Agency does not have the authority to inspect nuclear material before placing it in the plant.

Grossi discussed all these issues in Tehran last week with Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdullahian and the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency. Iran and Israel are just weeks away from direct missile attacks, but Grossi is not aware of any immediate decision to accelerate nuclear programs in response.

Instead, Iranian officials seem pleased that they are seen as the region’s nuclear and missile power and increasingly on par with Israel, which already has its own small nuclear arsenal, although it does not formally acknowledge it.

There has been some discussion about how to revive Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with the Obama administration, but Biden administration officials say things have changed dramatically and a completely new deal is needed.

“I suspect,” Mr. Grossi said this week, “that I will be back in Tehran often.”

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