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Iran denies UN inspectors access to images of nuclear sites

International Atomic Energy Agency chief to give statement as Tehran may have already deleted 3 months of footage from enrichment facilities across the country

In this image made from April 17, 2021, video released by the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, Iran. (IRIB via AP)
In this image made from April 17, 2021, video released by the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, Iran. (IRIB via AP)

TEHRAN, Iran —Iran’s parliament speaker said Sunday that international inspectors may no longer access surveillance images of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites, escalating tensions amid diplomatic efforts in Vienna to save Tehran’s atomic accord with world powers.

The comments by Iran’s parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, aired by state TV, further underscored the narrowing window for the US and others to reach terms with Iran. The Islamic Republic is already enriching and stockpiling uranium at levels far beyond those allowed by its 2015 nuclear deal.

“Regarding this, and based on the expiration of the three-month deadline, definitely the International Atomic Energy Agency will not have the right to access images from May 22,” Qalibaf said. May 22 was Saturday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency had said its director-general would brief reporters later Sunday in Vienna. The United Nations agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Grossi addresses the media after a meeting of the IAEA board of governors at the International Center in Vienna, Austria, Monday, March 1, 2021 (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

Under what is called an “Additional 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.”

Iran’s hard-line parliament in December approved a bill that would suspend part of UN inspections of its nuclear facilities if European signatories did not provide relief from oil and banking sanctions by February.

The IAEA struck a three-month deal with Iran to have it hold the surveillance images, with Tehran threatening to delete them afterward if no deal had been reached.

Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, center, is surrounded by a group of lawmakers after being elected as speaker of the parliament, in Tehran, Iran, May 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

It wasn’t immediately clear if the images from February had been deleted. Before Qalibaf’s remarks, lawmaker Ali Reza Salimi urged an open session of parliament to ensure Iran’s civilian nuclear arm “erased” the images. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran did not immediately comment on the decision.

“Order the head of the Atomic Energy Organization to avoid delay,” said Salimi, a cleric from Iran’s central city of Delijan. The “recorded images in the cameras should be eliminated.”

It also wasn’t clear what this meant for in-person inspections by the IAEA. There are 18 nuclear facilities and nine other locations in Iran under IAEA safeguards.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses the nation in a televised speech marking the Iranian New Year, in Tehran, Iran, March 21, 2021. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Qalibaf said Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all matters of state, supported the decision.

In 2018, then-President Donald Trump pulled the US unilaterally out of the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. An escalating series of incidents since Trump’s withdrawal has threatened the wider Mideast.

Over a year ago, a US drone strike killed a top Iranian general, causing Tehran to later launch ballistic missiles that wounded dozens of American troops in Iraq.

A mysterious explosion also struck Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, which Iran has described as sabotage, which Tehran blamed on Israel. In November, Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who founded the country’s military nuclear program some two decades earlier, was killed in an attack Tehran also blames on Israel.

Despite the threat over the images, last week, Iran’s president offered his most optimistic assessment yet of ongoing talks to resuscitate the nuclear deal with world powers, claiming there had been “major” agreement among diplomats even as other nations involved suggested challenges remain.

Speaking at a Thursday ceremony inaugurating several petrochemical projects, President Hassan Rouhani asserted that solutions to “major issues like sanctions” had been agreed to by diplomats, while other issues remained under discussion.

“We have taken a major and big step and the main agreement has been done,” Rouhani said.

Russia’s governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Mikhail Ulyanov smokes a cigarette in front of the ‘Grand Hotel Wien’ where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, April 20, 2021 . (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner, file)

That comment came just as Mikhail Ulyanov, a Russian diplomat involved in the talks, tweeted that it “is obvious now that the Vienna talks on (deal) will not be completed by May 21 as the participants hoped.” He described the situation as “regrettable but not dramatic.”

“May 21 wasn’t a deadline but a target date. It helped us not to forget about time pressure,” Ulyanov wrote. “The talks will continue until successful outcome.”

That mirrored comments Wednesday by Enrique Mora, the European Union official who chaired the talks between Russia, China, Germany, France, Britain and Iran. He said told reporters “we have made substantial progress” though there were “still things to be worked out.”

Chinese diplomat Wang Qun was paraphrased by the state-run Xinhua news agency as saying “there is still some distance away from the goal of reaching an agreement.” European diplomats involved said after the talks that they were “beginning to see the contours of what a final deal could look like” but that “success is not guaranteed.”

Diplomats agreed to resume the talks in Vienna this week.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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