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WORLD | 30-10-2019 11:43

IAEA Explainer: What is the International Atomic Energy Agency?

Argentina's Rafael Mariano Grossi will lead the global agency tasked with steering the Iran nuclear deal.

The United Nation's nuclear watchdog, which picked Argentina's Rafael Grossi as its new head on Tuesday, is charged with monitoring the implementation of the Iran deal as part of its efforts to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation worldwide.

The landmark 2015 agreement gave Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme, but it has been pushed to the verge of collapse since US President Donald Trump withdrew from it last year and proceeded to re-introduce sanctions.

In retaliation, Iran has been scaling back its commitments to limits on nuclear activities since earlier this year, putting pressure on the remaining signatories -- Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has had the delicate task of verifying the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), through regular inspections of Iranian facilities.

What role does the IAEA have in Iran?

Set up in 1957, the IAEA has 171 member states and employs some 2,500 experts.

Its Board of Governors, comprising 35 states, meets five times a year.

The IAEA promotes peaceful uses of atomic energy while at the same time overseeing efforts to detect and prevent possible nuclear weapons proliferation.

Because of previous international concern over its nuclear programme, Iran agreed in 2003 to allow snap IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities.

However, cooperation broke down in 2006. The IAEA referred Iran to the UN Security Council, which went on to impose sanctions, and Iran halted enhanced IAEA inspections.

A renewed diplomatic push eventually led to the JCPOA in 2015, under which the IAEA is charged with regular inspections of declared facilities in Iran such as uranium mines and centrifuge workshops for up to 25 years.

The aim is to ensure that Iran is not holding undeclared stocks of nuclear material and is not enriching uranium beyond a certain level.

But Tehran has already hit back three times with countermeasures this year in response to the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

In its latest move it fired up advanced centrifuges to boost its enriched uranium stockpiles. Iran has also broken the limits on uranium enrichment levels and the overall stockpile of enriched uranium laid down in the JCPOA.

How do IAEA inspections work?

The IAEA insists the inspection regime put in place by the JCPOA is the world's toughest.

Under the "Additional Protocol" agreed with Iran, inspectors may "conduct complementary access to any location in Iran".

The agency says that its inspection work has doubled since 2013. 

Former IAEA head Yukiya Amano, who died in July, says the agency's inspectors spend 3,000 calendar days per year on the ground in Iran.

He has also highlighted the some 2,000 tamper-proof seals attached to nuclear material and equipment and the "hundreds of thousands of images captured daily by our sophisticated surveillance cameras", the number of which has almost doubled since 2013.

Amano has called the JCPOA "a significant gain for verification" and said its failure "would be a great loss for nuclear verification and for multilateralism".

Agency under pressure

In addition to the US withdrawing from the deal, Israel -- Iran's regional arch-foe -- has also been highly critical of the JCPOA. 

In August 2017, Washington's envoy to the UN Nikki Haley urged the IAEA to widen its inspections, including to military sites.

A year later in an address to the UN General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed Iran had a "secret atomic warehouse" as part of a clandestine nuclear programme and called on the IAEA to inspect the site immediately.

In January, Amano rejected pressure on the agency, saying: "If our credibility is thrown into question, and, in particular, if attempts are made to micro-manage or put pressure on the Agency in nuclear verification, that is counter-productive and extremely harmful."

In recent reports on the JCPOA, the agency has also taken to reminding Iran that "timely and proactive co-operation" in providing access to locations it wishes to inspect would "enhance confidence".

--AFP

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