VIENNA — Iran has told the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, that it will significantly limit inspections of its nuclear facilities as of Feb. 23.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director-general of the Vienna-based agency, traveled to Tehran over the weekend to meet with Iranian officials to try to preserve at least some level of monitoring and verification for the UN entity.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday evening, Feb. 21, upon returning from Iran, Grossi said: “There is less access, let’s face it. But still, we were able to retain the necessary degree of monitoring and verification work.”
Grossi announced that the IAEA and Iran reached a “temporary, bilateral and technical understanding whereby the agency is going to continue its necessary verification and monitoring activities for a period of up to three months.” This plan will remain “under constant review” and could be suspended early or extended at any time.
“We want to avoid a situation where we are essentially flying blind,” Grossi added. He said the temporary agreement would enable IAEA inspectors to do their work “in a satisfactory manner.”
The arrangement also provides a bit of space for the United States and Iran to find a diplomatic path to return to mutual compliance and save the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The US, under the Trump administration, walked away from it in 2018.
Apart from the new agreement, Iran is still obliged to adhere to the so-called Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT. Under the Safeguards Agreement, Iran is bound to allow IAEA inspectors access to sites in Iran where nuclear materials are being produced and stored.
In a confidential report to the IAEA’s member states, seen by PassBlue, Grossi specified last week the various restrictions Tehran will introduce.
They relate, first and foremost, to the suspension of the Additional Protocol, which Iran committed to under the Iran deal. It grants the IAEA short-notice inspections of facilities that are not declared by Iran as nuclear sites. It is designed to help the agency determine that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran.
But Iran’s intentions go beyond suspending the Additional Protocol.
According to the confidential report, Iran also wants to prevent IAEA inspectors from using “modern technologies.” In the last few years, the agency has made considerable use of remote, continuous monitoring and surveillance technology, such as electronic seals, cameras, radiation detectors and online enrichment monitors.
On this point, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was clear. “The IAEA certainly will not get footage from those cameras,” he told the government-run, English-language Press TV on Feb. 21.
Furthermore, Iran intends to stop implementing other transparency measures related to “enrichment,” “uranium ore concentrate” and “centrifuge component manufacturing.” It also intends to restrict “access pursuant to provisions of the JCPOA,” which could mean restricting daily access to its main enrichment plants in Natanz and Fordow.
“Any loss of access is concerning, but this agreement between Iran and the IAEA staves off a crisis in the short term and should allow inspectors to reconstruct the history of Iran’s nuclear activities if the nuclear deal is restored,” Kelsey Davenport, director of the nonproliferation policy at the Washington-based Arms Control Association, told PassBlue. “This record will help counter speculation that Iran engaged in illicit nuclear activities when access was reduced.”
In addition to restricting IAEA access as of Feb. 23, Tehran has significantly stepped up its breaches of the Iran deal in recent months. It has begun enriching uranium to 20 percent, initiated the production of uranium metal and installed cascades of advanced centrifuges at its underground uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, which is built inside a mountain to resist potential bombardment. Under the nuclear deal, Iran is allowed to enrich uranium only up to 3.67 percent purity with less-efficient centrifuges. It also agreed not to produce uranium metal for 15 years.
Meanwhile, the remaining participants to the accord have increased diplomatic efforts to use the small window of time that remains to save the deal. The foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany (E3) met in Paris on Feb. 18, with the US joining virtually; in a joint statement from the four countries, they warned Iran “not to take any additional steps,” particularly related to limiting IAEA access. (China and Russia, also parties to the nuclear deal, have encouraged the US and Iran to return to compliance with the pact.)
The statement from the E3 and the US added that they were united in “underlining the dangerous nature of a decision to limit IAEA access” and urged Iran to “consider the consequences of such grave action, particularly at this time of renewed diplomatic opportunity.”
President Joe Biden told a virtual meeting of the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 19 that the US would work closely with allies in dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. “The threat of nuclear proliferation also continues to require careful diplomacy and cooperation among us,” Biden said.
The challenge for rescuing the nuclear deal for the E3 and the US is sequencing the next steps. Iran says that the US must lift sanctions first, while the US insists that Iran must return to compliance with the deal before the US removes sanctions.
To break the deadlock, Enrique Mora, the deputy secretary general of the European External Action Service, the diplomatic service and foreign and defense ministry of the European Union, tweeted last week that he was prepared to invite all parties to a meeting. The US said it was willing to join, and while the offer for talks was not outright rejected, there is no response from Tehran yet.
As a US State Department official said on Feb. 18 about the overall challenges: “The only way this is going to happen — if it’s going to happen — I assume this is going to be a painstaking and difficult process that’s going to take some time for it to see whether both sides agree on what they will define as compliance or compliance.”
So far, however, the actions of the US can be interpreted as a sign of good will but has not provided sanctions relief to Iran. Last week, the Biden administration reversed the “snapback” provision in the UN resolution endorsing the Iran nuclear deal, after the Trump administration invoked it last September, with no support from other Security Council members. The move by the US in the Council last fall claimed that all UN sanctions should be reimposed on Iran, but it was arguably a moot assertion.
Washington has also lifted restrictions on Iranian diplomats’ movements in New York City — possibly enabling an informal meeting of the parties to gather there soon, at the political directors’ level, although Geneva, Paris and Vienna are also rumored as settings for informal talks to be held.
Davenport of the Arms Control Association said: “It is imperative for Biden to act quickly before the window for restoring the nuclear deal closes. Failure to do so increases the risk of conflict and destabilizing nuclear competition in the region.”