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IAEA chief says nuclear security risks increased under Trump, urges Biden to re-engage

IAEA director on rising nuclear threats
IAEA director on rising nuclear threats Biden will face 03:35

United Nations — The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the global nuclear watchdog, told CBS News that the world has become a more dangerous place partly due to President Donald Trump's policies, and he urged Mr. Trump's successor to return to nuclear negotiations with adversaries.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi discussed the risks of both Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs to the world, and said Mr. Trump's unilateral withdrawal from the international nuclear agreement with Tehran had intensified the danger.

"From that moment, Iran, as a response to this [U.S. exit], decided to gradually start diminishing its compliance" with the nuclear pact, Grossi said in a wide-ranging interview, urging President-elect Joe Biden to reopen negotiations with Tehran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday, meanwhile, that while his country is "not excited" by Mr. Biden's ascent to the White House, "we are happy to see Trump leave office… because he has no commitment even to moral and humanitarian principles."

He expressed hope that the incoming administration would honor previous U.S. commitments, and insisted that Iran wants "security and stability in the entire world, and constructive dialogue with the countries willing to choose the path of dialogue."

Biden nominations signal changes for U.S. foreign policy 06:02

The IAEA chief also told CBS News that his agency was helping more than 130 countries test their citizens for COVID-19, offering both capacity for the gold standard "real-time PCR" lab testing, which was developed using nuclear technology, and expertise. Grossi said that work could prove vital in helping to prevent the next pandemic, warning that a rising trend of animal-to-human virus transmission, seen years before COVID-19 emerged, could hit humanity with a new health crisis every couple of years.

Read excerpts of the interview below, which have been edited for clarity and to remove redundancy:  

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi: Iran is moving on with its nuclear program. As you know, this is not working, or operating in a vacuum. This is done in the framework of an agreement, which was signed by the P5 [the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: U.S., U.K., France, Russia, and China] plus Germany [and] the European Union back in 2015. You remember that the United States withdrew from this agreement back in 2018, a couple of years ago, and then from that moment on, Iran, as a reply, as a response to this, decided to gradually start diminishing its compliance with this agreement.  

So, I would say, on the one hand, of course, there is, there is forward moving in the Iranian nuclear program. The thing is that the IAEA is still there to say what's happening. The future will depend a lot on what the countries which are party to the, to this agreement, decide in the future, and I would say in the next few weeks and months, I'm sure there will be renewed activity around it once there is a new administration in Washington and some other factors converge to what we hope will be a negotiation.  

CBS News' Pamela Falk: What is your message to the president-elect?  

Grossi: I think he has indicated what his intentions are. A dialogue with us will be indispensable. Because since… the agreement was first signed, and the implementation of that agreement happened, to now, a lot has changed… The situation on the ground has changed. So, the negotiators, the policymakers in Washington and elsewhere, and in the other capitals including Tehran, will have to base themselves on the new situation on the ground. 

Falk: Iran has more than 12 times the amount of enriched uranium permitted under that deal.  

Grossi: It does.  

Falk: And then it's continuing to enrich uranium to a purity of up to 4.5%.  

Grossi: It does.  

Falk: How do you get [Iran] back to compliance?  

Grossi: Well, I think the different sides have different expectations of what is going to happen, and I think I shouldn't speak for them.  

It's clear what they expect, and it boils down, I think, to the philosophy of the original agreement, I guess, which is a reduction, under IAEA inspection and verification, and controlling a number of activities. It is a very comprehensive agreement. 

What they are doing, the original agreement specified a certain degree of enrichment, which was fixed at the time at 3.67, and now they are in, reaching up 4-point-something. Let me say, because everything should be taken in a certain context, that the military grade is about 90%. But, of course, once you start enriching and you move closer to 20% or figures around that, the process of getting your uranium enriched at that level, which is of military quality becomes easier, becomes faster.

So, this is why everybody who is interested in this is looking at this, is watching what's going on, but the reality is that the levels, at the moment, are low, but above what was agreed. And this is what is of some concern — there is a pattern that is a deviation.  

Of course, Iran has its explanations; they explain it to us here in Vienna and to the world. Because they say: "Others left, we leave." 

Falk: Turning to another concern of the world: North Korea.  

Grossi: Last time we were there was more than 10 years ago, in 2009, which does not mean that we are completely in the dark. We have been following what is going on there through analysis through satellite imagery. You know, all of these are techniques that are very sophisticated, quite developed, and allow you to have a pretty good idea of what's going on, [about] the kind of activity that is taking place, the outputs, the estimated amounts of material which are being produced. So, you're not completely in the dark…

Nuclear watchdog says Iran and North Korea pose a global threat 08:28

Grossi (continued): The bilateral track, as it was the case over the past few, four years, with the current administration in the United States, that was the preferred course of action. In the past, you had a bigger table and more participants — Russia, China, Japan, some others were there around the table.  

So, we don't know what kind of format this negotiation will take. But one thing is for sure — once there is an agreement, we will have to go and inspect, otherwise that agreement has no value. 

We are in a constant state of alert. Non-proliferation is a never-ending business, because nuclear material is out there, and you can never relax. It's as simple as that…  We have to be there all the time checking that all nuclear material is in peaceful uses, and this takes a tremendous effort, and history shows, experience shows, that the temptation to have the ultimate weapon — a nuclear weapon is already there, will continue to be.

There is the bigger challenge… of disarmament, but we'll get there. And before we get there, we have to make sure that nuclear weapons do not proliferate and make our world simply unpredictable and terribly dangerous.

Falk: How important, even though the [COVID-19] vaccine is being rolled out, how important is testing

Grossi: It goes much beyond testing, because the testing is like addressing the problem, the mess we are in the moment. But through nuclear technologies — and this is where I want to perhaps take a second of your attention — we are working on preventing more zoonosis [disease spread from animals to humans]. And now we have put together a project which is called Zodiac for zoonosis disease, integrated action, where we put together all these technologies that we have... by using isotopic tracers and other nuclear technologies, we work with veterans at the labs around the world.

So the idea is that we will have this network of people using nuclear technologies to detect faster and faster when a new zoonotic system, and it will, if you look back a few years, you will see a very concerning pattern, which shows to you that, in my calculation, every two years, we have one.  

We had SARS, we had MERS, we had Zika, we have chikungunya, now we had COVID-19. So, it is obvious that this transit from the animal to the to the human is and will continue repeating itself. So, when you have the elements to identify, and the rapid connectivity among the veterinary labs, then you have, you're better prepared to face whatever would be coming.

So we are trying to be helpful at both levels. 

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