Talk in Iran about change in nuclear weapons policy must stop, UN expert says

<span>Rafael Grossi on a visit to Isfahan, Iran, to improve access to nuclear sites for inspectors last week.</span><span>Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Rafael Grossi on a visit to Isfahan, Iran, to improve access to nuclear sites for inspectors last week.Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Loose talk within Iran about abandoning the country’s prohibition on possessing nuclear weapons is very worrying and needs to stop, Rafael Grossi, the head of the UN nuclear inspectorate, has said.

He was speaking to the Guardian after talks in London with David Cameron, the British foreign secretary, about the future of Iran’s nuclear programme and Grossi’s delicate efforts to persuade Iran to re-establish an effective inspection programme capable of guaranteeing that the country is not seeking a nuclear weapon.

As a result of Iran’s military confrontation with Israel last month an increasing number of senior Iranian politicians have been calling for the country to develop nuclear weapons to match those they believe Israel has secretly developed.

Kamal Kharazi, the supreme leader’s foreign policy adviser and a former Iranian foreign minister, threatened a shift to nuclear deterrence if Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities. “We have no decision to build a nuclear bomb but should Iran’s existence be threatened, there will be no choice but to change our military doctrine,” Kharazi said. Others close to the supreme leader this week called for the UN inspectors to be thrown out.

Speaking to the Guardian, Grossi, who is director general of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), said the “loose talk about nuclear weapons is extremely serious for me. And I think it should stop. We are moving closer to a situation where there is a big, huge question mark about what they are doing and why they are doing it.”

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is thought to have issued a fatwa – or religious edict – banning the Iranian use of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, some time before or in 2005. Theologians have long disputed whether – and how – the directive can be rescinded.

The fear of western officials is now that the fatwa is not immutable and could be torn up.

Grossi said that the status of the agreement with Iran on inspecting its civil nuclear programme is “in a very tight spot”.

He revealed he is trying to negotiate detailed deeper understandings, but not a new written agreement to replace that signed in March 2023, with the Iranians on what his inspectors will be allowed to see and inspect before another meeting of the IAEA board of governors in June. A censure motion would signal a new crisis with Iran, and possible withdrawal by Iran from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Europe and the US held off from tabling a censure motion against Iran at the last IAEA meeting in March, but Grossi wants broader systematic access to Iran’s nuclear sites, including an ability to reconstruct what Iran has been doing in the year that his inspectors have been debarred from key sites.

Grossi visited Tehran and Isfahan last week to discuss improved access, and his officials are now trying to nail down the technical details of what the inspectors can see.

He said: “I try to make the most of what I can with the cards I have and have a process which is useful. And I think it is not only useful, it is indispensable unless you want to go to war or something like this.”

He made no attempt to disguise how the inspection regime had been eroded due to Iranian restrictions, saying: “There was a period when we were recording information and storing this information but could not access it. But there is another period in which there was nothing.

“I have been saying that without meaningful engagement, without us being able to have capacity to see and to see more in Iran, my ability to guarantee that everything is for peaceful uses in Iran would be limited and perhaps approaching the moment where I would not be able to say that any more.”

He added: “There would be a moment when I would draw a line. It would be a very critical juncture because the international community would have to grapple with the reality that we don’t know what Iran may or may not have and the countries will draw their conclusions.”

He stressed: “I want to emphasise that we are not negotiating a document or an agreement. The joint statement of 2023 is good enough. We don’t need anything else.”