Diplomacy in the shadow of COVID-19: Sweden’s year as Chair of the IAEA Board of Governors

Published 25 August 2020 in:

Sweden’s Permanent Representative to the IAEA, Ambassador Mikaela Kumlin Granit.

The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) plays an indispensable role in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, promoting nuclear and radiation safety, and facilitating the use of nuclear technology for socioeconomic development. As Chair of the Board of Governors, Sweden has played a leading role in ensuring that the Board has been able to continue its work during the COVID-19 pandemic and maintain a constructive approach despite difficulties surrounding Iran’s nuclear technology programme.

Sweden has led the work of the IAEA Board of Governors since 23 September last year. The chairmanship is led by Sweden’s Permanent Representative to the IAEA, Ambassador Mikaela Kumlin Granit, and the ambition has been to prioritise the cohesion and effective running of the Board rather than specific Swedish positions. Nonetheless, the delegation has continued to promote fundamental Swedish priorities such as gender equality, the environment and the 2030 Agenda with a focus on marine and water resources.

Normally, the work of the Board is mainly focused around four regular sessions each year. However, during the summer of 2019, new challenges emerged that would require a significantly more intensive Swedish term than envisaged.

  • The health of Director General Yukiyo Amano deteriorated rapidly and he died on 18 July. During a special meeting of the Board of Governors, it was decided that the next Chair would promptly lead negotiations among Board members with the aim of reaching consensus, as early as October, on a new Director General, who would take office no later than 1 January 2020.
  • During another special meeting that summer, a schism was revealed between the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy of the United States and the other Board members, who continued to support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal that the US left a year previously. At the same time, Iran announced that it intended to gradually withdraw from its commitments under the JCPOA until the promised relaxation of sanctions occurred.

Following intensive and complex negotiations, on 30 October 2019, the Board was able to agree on appointing Rafael Grossi from Argentina as the new Director General. Few people thought it would be possible to conclude the process within the tight timeframe that had been set.

Sweden’s approach as chief negotiator was characterised by transparency, inclusiveness and trust – as well as an innovative way of applying the rules for informal and formal votes. According to many people, the credibility built up by the Embassy in connection with the negotiations contributed to the positive outcome. It has also continued to benefit the Swedish chairmanship.

Many Board members are concerned about Iran’s departure from the JCPOA, which is considered to have shortened the start-up time in the event of an Iranian decision to acquire nuclear weapons. However, the JCPOA is primarily managed by its signatories, while the role of the IAEA is to inspect and report.

The work of the Board has rather been focused on reports of a lack of cooperation and possible undeclared nuclear material within the framework of Iran’s bilateral safeguards agreement. The efforts to make progress on this issue led to an extraordinary board meeting in November and special agenda items at the board meetings in March and June. Following a vote on 19 June, the Board adopted a resolution that urged Iran to promptly provide access to IAEA inspectors for sample-taking at two suspected locations. Despite the members’ different perspectives on the Iran question, it has still been possible to maintain the Board as a forum for constructive exchanges and negotiations.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has shaped the work of the IAEA ever since the Austrian Government introduced social distancing measures in March – right in the middle of a board meeting. After many ifs and buts, the Board was able to agree on holding its annual budget meeting virtually in May without interpretation, with decisions taken by silence procedure. It was one of the first meetings of its kind in the UN system in a situation when experience of virtual meetings was limited and the legal and political aspects unknown.

The preparations for the board meeting in June were even more challenging, exacerbated by the difficulties of securing interpretation in a virtual setting and dealing with a contentious draft resolution on Iran. Until the very last week, there were different opinions on whether the meeting should be held virtually, physically or a combination of the two. Austria had relaxed its rules and now allowed gatherings of up to 100 people, and UN staff in Vienna had gradually begun to return to work. Despite this, the Board was split between those who did not want to risk meeting in person and those who preferred to discuss sensitive issues in a meeting room. In the end, the Swedish chairmanship succeeded in brokering an agreement between the E3 (France, Germany and the UK) and Russia to hold the meeting virtually, but that the Board would meet in person in the event of disagreement on the Iran resolution.

In September, the last board meeting under Swedish leadership will be held in the IAEA’s largest meeting room, where the annual General Conference will also take place the following week. Austria now allows gatherings of up to 500 people, but the number of delegates will still be restricted to ensure social distancing in the room.

Sweden’s profile with regard to its national priorities had already been raised in the spring of 2019 through the attendance of Crown Princess Victoria and Margot Wallström at the IAEA summit on the 2030 Agenda. During 2019 and 2020, Sweden has provided targeted financial contributions to some of the IAEA’s operations. These include efforts to combat cancer forms that affect women, a study on how plasticisers are spread in the marine environment and a survey of groundwater resources in the Sahel region. Sweden also contributed to a new project to give developing Member States access to nuclear-derived technology for diagnosing COVID-19.

Sweden’s visibility was further strengthened through the participation of Ann Linde at the IAEA General Conference in 2019 and Isabella Lövin at the IAEA Ministerial Conference on combating nuclear terrorism in February 2020. On 21 September, a virtual bilateral meeting took place between Rafael Grossi and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven.

As the chairmanship draws to an end, it is now time to summarise what has been achieved. Despite difficult challenges, the assignment has been carried out with success. The IAEA has been able to weather the COVID-19 storm well, with minimal restrictions in terms of political governance and daily operations. The organisation has a new Director General, who enjoys strong support among Member States, and a budget for 2021. At the same time, the chairmanship has strengthened Sweden’s reputation both as an effective and technically and diplomatically knowledgeable and credible multilateral actor and as a promoter of the 2030 Agenda and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.


Facts/The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was formed in 1956 to promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology and prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
  • In Sweden, the organisation is best known for its role in managing crises related to nuclear weapons in Iraq, North Korea and Iran, and for its Swedish Directors General (Sigvard Eklund and Hans Blix) who led the organisation from 1961 to 1997.
  • In 2005, the IAEA and its then Director General Mohamed ElBaradei received the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way.”