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Iran announces official start of new restrictions on UN nuclear inspections

Tehran says footage from nuclear facilities will be withheld from IAEA but handed over later if sanctions relief is granted; inspections now barred at non-nuclear sites

This October 26, 2010, photo shows the reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside the southern city of Bushehr, Iran. (AP Photo/Mehr News Agency, Majid Asgaripour)
This October 26, 2010, photo shows the reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside the southern city of Bushehr, Iran. (AP Photo/Mehr News Agency, Majid Asgaripour)

Iran has officially begun restricting international inspections of its nuclear facilities, Iranian state TV reported Tuesday.

The state TV report gave little detail beyond confirming that Iran had made good on its threat to reduce cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in a bid to pressure European countries and US President Joe Biden’s administration to lift economic sanctions and restore the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran has said it plans to cease its implementation of the “Additional Protocol,” a confidential agreement between Tehran and the IAEA reached as part of the landmark nuclear accord that grants the UN inspectors enhanced powers to visit nuclear facilities and examine Iran’s program.

It remains unclear exactly how access will be limited. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the IAEA would be blocked from accessing its network of surveillance cameras at nuclear sites. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Tehran’s civilian nuclear agency, has promised to keep the footage for three months, then hand it over to the IAEA — but only if granted sanctions relief.

US President Donald Trump signs a document reinstating sanctions against Iran after announcing the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on May 8, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB)

Nearly three years ago, former US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the nuclear accord and reimposed sanctions on Iran that have crippled its economy.

To ramp up pressure on the Biden administration, Iran has announced gradual violations of the 2015 agreement. Over recent weeks, Iran has started enriching uranium up to 20% purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels. It is also spinning advanced centrifuges and producing uranium metal, a component of a nuclear warhead.

On Monday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei signaled Iran would refuse to capitulate US pressure over its nuclear program. Khamenei said that Iran could enrich uranium up to 60% purity if necessary, but reiterated that the country forbids nuclear weapons. Tehran has long insisted that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, such as power generation and medical research.

“That international Zionist clown has said they won’t allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons. First of all, if we had any such intention, even those more powerful than him wouldn’t be able to stop us,” Khamenei wrote on his Twitter account, in an apparent reference to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The statement came after IAEA chief Rafael Grossi held last-ditch talks in Tehran on Sunday where the two sides hammered out a temporary technical deal.

In this February 20, 2021, photo, Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi, right, speaks with the spokesman of Iran’s atomic agency Behrouz Kamalvandi upon his arrival at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport, Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

They confirmed that Iran will continue to allow access to UN inspectors to its nuclear sites — but will for three months bar inspections of other, non-nuclear sites.

Grossi said afterwards that a “temporary solution” had been reached with Tehran.

“There is less access, let’s face it. But still, we were able to retain the necessary degree of monitoring and verification work,” he said.

Grossi did not give details of precisely which activities the IAEA would no longer be able to engage in but confirmed that the number of inspectors in Iran would not be reduced and that snap inspection could continue under the temporary arrangement.

However, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Monday the talks had “resulted in a very significant diplomatic achievement and a very significant technical achievement.”

Khatibzadeh stressed that the outcome was “within the framework of the parliament’s binding law.”

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saied Khatibzadeh gestures during a press conference in Tehran on February 22, 2021 (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Iran will temporarily suspend so-called “voluntary transparency measures” — notably inspections of non-nuclear sites, including military sites suspected of nuclear-related activity.

Tehran will for “three months record and keep the information of some activities and monitoring equipment” at such sites, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization said.

This means that cameras will keep running at those sites, “but no footage will be given to the IAEA,” Khatibzadeh said.

If the US sanctions are not lifted within three months, the footage will be deleted, Iran’s atomic body said.

Under the protocol with Iran, the IAEA “collects and analyzes hundreds of thousands of images captured daily by its sophisticated surveillance cameras,” the agency said in 2017. The agency also said then that it had placed “2,000 tamper-proof seals on nuclear material and equipment.”

According to a Friday report, IAEA inspectors last summer found uranium particles at two Iranian nuclear sites that Iran tried to block access to.

Illustrative: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran, Jan. 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno, File)

Iranian authorities had stonewalled the inspectors from reaching the sites for seven months before the inspection, and Iranian officials have failed to explain the presence of the uranium, the Reuters news agency reported, citing diplomats familiar with the UN agency’s work.

The inspections took place in August and September of 2020, the report said. The IAEA keeps its findings secret and only shared the details of the find with a few countries.

The Wall Street Journal reported the suspicious findings earlier this month, without identifying the material.

The Reuters report did not identify the sites. Earlier reports said one of the sites was in Abadeh, south of Isfahan — a location that in September 2019 was flagged by Netanyahu as the site of an alleged secret nuclear facility. Iran denies that it seeks nuclear weapons; Netanyahu is adamant that the regime is fooling the world, and has said that a trove of nuclear documents concerning its rogue program, smuggled out of Tehran by the Mossad two years ago, proves Iran’s duplicity.

Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed Israel is prepared to act militarily to prevent Iran from obtaining an atomic weapon.

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