Iran’s compromise with UN nuclear watchdog buys time for negotiations, but gives inspectors ‘less access’

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Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saied Khatibzadeh gestures during a press conference in Tehran on February 22, 2021. Iran hailed as a “significant achievement” a temporary agreement Tehran reached with the head of the UN nuclear watchdog on site inspections.

Photo by ATTA KENARE | AFP via Getty Images

Iran and the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog reached a compromise late Sunday to avert the impact of a deadline set by Tehran that could have seen nuclear inspectors expelled from the country.

Emergency talks took place in Tehran after Iran said that nuclear inspections would be suspended unless it gets urgent sanctions relief.  

The International Atomic Energy Agency has now said it’s struck a deal with Iran to continue “necessary monitoring” of the country’s nuclear activities for up to three months, though its officials did not elaborate on what that monitoring would entail. 

Iran’s Parliament previously voted to suspend its so-called Additional Protocol with the IAEA if U.S. oil and banking sanctions were not lifted by this week, meaning much of the rigorous inspection carried out by the U.N. agency as part of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal will end.

“The Additional Protocol is going to be suspended,” IAEA chief Rafael Grossi told reporters in Vienna Sunday night upon returning from Tehran. “We were able to retain the necessary degree of monitoring and verification work,” he said, adding, “There is less access, let’s face it.” 

But the fact that some access will still be allowed for inspectors prevents a much worse escalation that would’ve left the international community entirely in the dark on Iran’s nuclear activities. 

The IAEA’s “technical understanding” reached with Iran was critical to buy time for potential diplomacy, its director said.  

“The hope of the IAEA has been to be able to stabilize a situation which was very unstable,” Grossi said. “And I think this technical understanding does it so that other political consultations at other levels can take place, and most importantly we can avoid a situation in which we would’ve been, in practical terms, flying blind.”

Sanctions standoff

Tensions remain high. On Sunday, before the compromise was reached, Iranian authorities threatened to shut off the IAEA’s cameras set up as part of the Additional Protocol agreement. The agency has additional protocols with several countries.  

In Iran, the IAEA “collects and analyzes hundreds of thousands of images captured daily by its sophisticated surveillance cameras,” it said in 2017, adding as well that it had put “2,000 tamper-proof seals on nuclear material and equipment.”

The Joe Biden administration wants to return to the nuclear deal, which the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from in 2018. But Iran says it won’t join negotiations until Washington lifts certain sanctions; something Biden says he won’t do unless Iran rolls back its nuclear deal violations. 

The Iranian nuclear deal was signed between the U.S., Iran, and several world powers in 2015 to lift economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs to its nuclear program. It’s been on life support since the U.S. withdrawal, and Iran has since then been gradually breaching more and more of its rules, including building new advanced equipment and stockpiling and enriching uranium far beyond the agreement’s limits. Tehran maintains that its activities are only for peaceful purposes.     

Iranian officials emphasize that their violations of the deal can be reversed if they see Washington commit to its own obligations under the accord. 

“There has been a dismal failure on the part of the Europeans and Americans to implement their obligations,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said over the weekend. “The minute they come back to full compliance, we will go back to full compliance.” 

‘The Iranians need money’ 

Last week, the Biden administration offered to restart talks with Iran, marking the U.S.’s biggest diplomatic overture to the country in more than four years. But Iran is so far refusing to budge; it says it wants sanctions lifted first. This is unlikely to happen in part because Biden faces significant criticism domestically if he appears too “soft” on Iran. 

Ultimately, however, some believe Iran’s return to the deal is inevitable — if only because Iran’s economy has been crippled under sanctions and it needs economic relief.

“I think, ultimately, a deal is possible because the Iranians need money,” Richard Goldberg of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told CNBC on Monday.     

In the meantime, the countries remain at loggerheads as the nuclear deal reaches a critical moment. The three-month grace period agreed between the IAEA and Iran could be a vital window for Washington and Tehran to work out their demands and agree on the sequencing of any potential concessions, experts say. 

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