Rafael Grossi and Iran's nuclear chief Mohammad Eslami in Tehran. March 5, 2022

IAEA Chief Visiting Tehran Says Safeguards Issues Impact Nuclear Talks

Saturday, 03/05/2022
Maryam Sinaiee

British Iranian journalist and political analyst

IAEA head Rafael Grossi met Iran’s nuclear chief Saturday morning during his trip to Tehran to resolve safeguards issues that could impact a new nuclear deal.

Iran’s nuclear head Mohammad Eslami Iran would resolve “outstanding matters” by June 21 with the UN atomic watchdog. It was unclear if the watchdog chief backed the timeline.

Eslami announced the timeframe in Tehran at a press conference alongside Rafael Mariano Grossi, visiting chief of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency.

It was unclear how the three-month timetable would fit with nuclear talks between Tehran and world powers in Vienna, where many participants over the past week have stressed that efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are reaching a conclusion.

"We have agreed to provide the IAEA by the end of [the Iranian month of] Khordad [June 21] with documents related to outstanding questions between Tehran and the agency," Eslami told the news conference, which was televised in Iran.

"It is important to have this understanding ... to work together, to work very intensively," Grossi said. But the IAEA chief, who was due to return to Vienna Saturday, added: "There are still matters that need to be addressed by Iran."

Complex interplay

The interplay between the Vienna talks and the IAEA role is a complex one. As a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT), Iran is subject to IAEA inspections and monitoring under its NPT ‘safeguards’ agreement.

But the agency’s role was enhanced under the 2015 deal, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), which limited Iran’s nuclear program in scale and nature. Since 2019, a year after the United States left the JCPOA and began ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions, Iran has both expanded its nuclear program and limited IAEA access almost to the lower level required under safeguards.

But in addition to negotiating a temporary arrangement to maintain access beyond safeguards, Grossi has continued to request information on Iran’s nuclear work prior to 2003, including the agency’s finding of uranium traces it says are unexplained. This IAEA line of enquiry comes under safeguards.

It was reported over the past week that Iran had demanded in Vienna, as part of an agreement over reviving the JCPOA, that this IAEA enquiry be dropped. But in Tehran, Grossi appeared to suggest Saturday that it might be other parties to the talks – presumably the United States or the three western European JCPOA signatories – who were insisting the probe continues.

Resolving ‘outstanding issues’

"Without resolving these (outstanding) issues, efforts to revive the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) may not be possible,” Grossi told Saturday’s press conference. The IAEA chief did not explain whether these ‘outstanding issues’ might be long-standing questions, future agency work in monitoring the reimplementation of the JCPOA, or both.

Aside from any issues directly within the IAEA remit, the Vienna talks have faced challenges in agreeing which US sanctions contravene the JCPOA and exactly how the refined and expanded Iranian nuclear program should be brought back within JCPOA limits.

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