Four weeks at most remain to restore enough inspectors’ access to avoid a “fatal blow” to hopes of reviving Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, the UN atomic chief says.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) told a news conference in Vienna Thursday that without Iran restoring some of the monitoring equipment it is now removing, the agency would be unable to piece together enough of Tehran’s most important nuclear work for the 2015 deal, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), to be worth saving.
Grossi was speaking after Iran overnight told the IAEA it planned to remove further equipment, including cameras, after the 35-member IAEA board Wednesday passed a resolution critical of Iran for not satisfying the agency over the nature and origins of uranium traces found in three sites. Grossi told the press conference this meant that even though more than 40 agency cameras would still operate, “basically all” the extra equipment installed under the 2015 deal would be gone.
Tehran has stressed that it intended to maintain a basic level of monitoring and inspectors’ access as required under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and has argued that questions regarding the uranium traces, which relate to pre-2003 work, are ‘technical’ and should be kept separate from the ‘political’ challenge of reviving the JCPOA.
In this, Iran has been supported by China and Russia, which opposed the IAEA resolution moved Wednesday by France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
But Grossi’s argument is that without the agency being able to understand Iran’s activities during the time it has exceeded JCPOA limits – starting 2019, the year after the United States left the JCPOA – it would be unable to resume its role of certifying that Iran remained within the terms of a revived 2015 agreement.
Contrary to ‘mutual confidence’
Grossi told the press conference that his greatest potential concern was Iran’s acceleration of earlier announced plans to install more efficient centrifuges, devices that enrich uranium, at its Natanz plant.Such machines, barred under the JCPOA, increase speed and efficiency in raising enrichment levels, when Iran is near to acquiring sufficient highly-enriched uranium for a crude nuclear weapon. “This runs contrary to the idea of providing more mutual confidence,” Grossi said.
Iran decided in November 2020 to begin enriching uranium beyond 5-percent purity, and reduce IAEA access at a time when President-elect Joe Biden had expressed a clear intent to restore the JCPOA.
Grossi agreed with Iran om a temporary arrangement in February 2021 to continue access and monitoring above the level required under the NPT, but these have come under increasing pressure since talks to revive the JCPOA between Iran and six world powers faltered in March.
It remains unclear what the consequences of the IAEA resolution will be. Some analysts have welcomed the IAEA resolution as a spur to renewed efforts to salvage the JCPOA. There are also voices in Europe, including former European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who have criticized the Biden administration for passivity in the face of domestic politics and warned that failure to restore the deal will promote dangerous instability.
In contrast, Robert Menendez, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Democrat, argued Thursday in a tweet welcoming the IAEA resolution that a return to the JCPOA was not in Washington’s strategic interests.
In a speech carried on state television Thursday, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi said that, in the face of the IAEA resolution, “in the name of God and the great nation of Iran, we will not back off a single step from our positions.”