US President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal would require a preliminary agreement between the parties laying out how Iran’s violations of the multilateral accord can be reversed, the head of the UN atomic watchdog said Thursday.
“I cannot imagine that they are going simply to say, ‘We are back to square one’ because square one is no longer there,” Rafael Grossi, who heads the International Atomic Energy Agency, told Reuters in an interview.
“It is clear that there will have to be a protocol or an agreement or an understanding or some ancillary document which will stipulate clearly what we do,” said Grossi, whose watchdog has been tasked with monitoring the 2015 agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
US President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018 and began imposing a host of sanctions against Tehran as part of a so-called maximum pressure campaign aimed at buckling Iran and convincing it to agree to a more favorable agreement, in Washington’s eyes.
But Iran has not done so, instead choosing to enrich uranium to numbers far beyond what the deal allowed. The Islamic Republic’s stockpile of enriched uranium is more than 2.4 tons, 12 times the JCPOA limit, though still less than the more than eight tons Iran had enriched before signing the deal. Iran has been enriching uranium up to 4.5% purity, above the deal’s 3.67% limit though below the 20% it achieved before the deal.
For his part, Biden has vowed to re-enter the nuclear agreement if Iran first returns to compliance with it. He has also expressed a desire to negotiate a “longer and stronger” follow-up agreement that would extend the time-limited provisions on the JCPOA, while also addressing Iran’s missile program and curbing the influence of Tehran’s regional proxies.
Iran has indicated some willingness to return to compliance with the agreement if the US lifts the sanctions that were put in place after Trump’s withdrawal, but has asserted that it would not agree to negotiations for a subsequent deal.
“There is more [nuclear] material… there is more activity, there are more centrifuges, and more are being announced. So what happens with all this? This is the question for them at the political level to decide,” Grossi told Reuters.
“What I see is that we’re moving full circle back to December 2015,” he added, referring to the period shortly after the agreement was signed when the IAEA monitored Iran’s removal of large amounts of nuclear material from several sites across the country in order to comply with the JCPOA.
“If they want to [comply], they could do it pretty fast. But for all of those things we had a charted course,” Grossi added.
On Wednesday, the remaining parties to the faltering nuclear accord met to discuss Tehran’s latest violations along with Biden’s plans to reenter the agreement.
The meeting of the so-called “joint commission” included China, France, Russia, Iran, Germany and Britain and was chaired by senior EU foreign affairs official Helga Schmid.
Meanwhile, the assassination last month of prominent Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — whom the US and Israel had long seen as the head of Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program — has heightened tensions in the region, with Iran blaming the killing on Israel.
In the wake of Fakhrizadeh’s death, Iranian MPs passed a bill calling for further expansion to Iran’s nuclear program and an end to inspections of nuclear facilities by the IAEA.
The Iranian foreign ministry said it did not agree with the bill and President Hassan Rouhani has suggested he will not sign it into law.
Rouhani has defied criticism from Iran’s ultra-conservatives to state his determination to seize the “opportunity” presented by the change of US president in January.
‘Not the best moment’
Rouhani has said Iran is ready to come back into compliance with the deal as soon as other parties fulfill their commitments.
Biden has said he is willing to return to the deal but has revealed little else about forthcoming US strategy on the question.
Before the start of Wednesday’s talks, Russia’s ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, tweeted that the focus would be on how to “preserve the nuclear deal and ensure its full and balanced implementation.”
“The role of [the] US in this regard will inevitably be discussed,” he added.
One diplomat told AFP that Wednesday’s meeting would be “an opportunity to say to the Iranians face to face to stop the breaches of the deal” and not to ruin the chances of a return to diplomacy under Biden.
Tensions between Tehran and the West have also been worsened in recent days by the execution in Iran last week of dissident Ruhollah Zam, which provoked a global outcry.
But despite the various sources of friction, the diplomat said that inspections were continuing “as normal” on the ground.
On Monday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Wednesday’s meeting was part of “our work in order to keep the JCPOA alive.”
A few days earlier he had emphasized that the deal was “the only way to avoid Iran becoming a nuclear power” and said a meeting of ministers from participants to the JCPOA would be called before Christmas.
AFP contributed to this report