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The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency tells "Axios on HBO" that it's "essential" to have a nuclear deal with Iran because otherwise "we are flying blind."

Driving the news: Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi sat down with "Axios on HBO" at IAEA headquarters in Vienna, ahead of Iran's June 18 presidential election and a June 24 extension on negotiations seeking to restore curtailed surveillance of Iranian nuclear sites and salvage the 2015 deal.

  • The Biden administration wants to re-enter the deal but impose new restrictions. Iran, which has long insisted its nuclear program is peaceful, wants sanctions lifted without opening itself to broader limitations.

Flashback: Former President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal in 2018. Iran has since disclosed enriching uranium at levels that far exceed the deal's limits but technically fall below the 90% considered weapons-grade purity.

What they're saying: Asked whether he believes Iran has an active nuclear weapons program, Grossi responded: "No, there is no information indicating that at the moment."

  • But he raised concerns about Iran's stepped-up enrichment combined with the international community's reduced visibility in recent months.
  • "This is very serious," Grossi said. "When you enrich at 60%, you are very close. It's technically indistinguishable from weapon-grade material. So when you combine this with the fact that our inspection access is being curtailed, then I start to worry."

The big picture: Grossi also addressed North Korea; Israel's resistance to joining the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT); and the limits of what the IAEA knows about the programs of the U.S., Russia and other nuclear powers.

  • As for nuclear threats posed by hackers and criminals: "The reality is that the possibility of misuse of nuclear material is higher than of a nuclear war. ... We have growing alertness on this issue."

What's next: Since taking the helm in December 2019, Grossi has elevated the IAEA's visibility in global efforts to address climate change and pandemics, saying that's part of the agency's job.

  • "We have to look into everything nuclear science and technology can do for us ... climate change, societal issues. These are matters that you cannot simply go alone. We need these institutions of global cooperation because when we cooperate, we get good solutions. As simple as that."

Go deeper

Jun 12, 2021 - World

"Intense" Iran nuclear talks underway again in Vienna

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Seyyed Abbas Araghchi (C) and Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service Enrique Mora (R) are seen as they are leaving after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Joint Commission Iran talks meeting in Vienna, Austria, on June 2. Photo: Askin Kiyagan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Indirect nuclear talks between the United States and Iran resumed on Saturday in Vienna with the chief coordinator saying he believes a deal will emerge during this sixth round of negotiation, Reuters reports.

Why it matters: The talks are at a critical stage as key deadlines approach, after which a deal could be much harder to strike.

Jun 13, 2021 - World

Netanyahu uses last speech as prime minister to attack Biden on Iran

Netnayahu addreses the Knesset. Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty

Hours before a vote to oust him, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused President Biden of endangering Israel's security by taking a soft line on Iran, and claimed his successor, Naftali Bennett, would be too weak to stand up to Washington.

Why it matters: Netanyahu waged a desperate but unsuccessful campaign to stop a "change coalition" from joining together to replace him after an inconclusive election in March. Facing an imminent demotion to opposition leader, he foreshadowed a willingness to damage the U.S.-Israel relationship to put his rival under pressure.

Naomi Osaka eliminated from Olympic tennis tournament in Tokyo

Czech 42nd-ranked Marketa Vondrousova (L) shakes hands with Japan's Naomi Osaka after their Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games women's singles third round tennis match at the Ariake Tennis Park in Tokyo on Tuesday. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

Naomi Osaka was eliminated from the Olympics after losing her Tokyo tennis tournament match 6-1, 6-4 in the third round to Czech Marketa Vondrousova on Tuesday.

Of note: Osaka is the women's world No. 2, while is Vondrousova ranked No.42.