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UN nuclear chief urges inspections of Iran sites not be a ‘bargaining chip’

Iranian move limiting inspections of its development program could draw rebuking resolution from IAEA quarterly meeting; Tehran’s foreign minister warns against it

Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, speaks during a press conference shortly after the IAEA Board of Governors meeting at the agency's headquarters in Vienna, Austria on March 1, 2021. (JOE KLAMAR / AFP)
Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, speaks during a press conference shortly after the IAEA Board of Governors meeting at the agency's headquarters in Vienna, Austria on March 1, 2021. (JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

VIENNA, Austria — The head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog appealed Monday for its inspection work in Iran not to become a “bargaining chip” as world powers mull negotiations to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

“The inspection work of the IAEA must be preserved… (it) should not be put in the middle of a negotiating table as a bargaining chip,” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi told a press conference at the start of the agency’s quarterly meeting of its board of governors.

On February 23, Iran suspended some IAEA inspections in response to the US refusal so far to lift sanctions imposed by former US president Donald Trump.

Grossi described the suspension of those inspections as a “huge loss,” but when asked if the agency could still reassure the international community that the Iranian nuclear program was exclusively peaceful, he replied: “So far, so good.”

Grossi said the IAEA would continue to have the means to verify the amount of uranium enriched by Iran.

On February 21 Grossi announced after two days of talks with Iranian officials in Tehran that Iran and the IAEA had struck an interim three-month deal to mitigate the impact of the suspended inspections.

Recordings from monitoring equipment the IAEA installed at Iran’s nuclear sites will be kept by Iran for three months and provided to the IAEA if US sanctions are lifted.

European states are considering putting forward a resolution at this week’s meeting condemning Iran’s decision to suspend some inspections.

Iran has said that the introduction of such a resolution would push it to abandon the temporary agreement with the IAEA.

Grossi refused to be drawn on the utility of a critical resolution.

“My appeal to all is to have constructive discussions and to preserve the work of the agency,” Grossi said.

Western countries will be trying to find a way of censuring Iran without jeopardizing fragile efforts to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Tehran and major powers on its nuclear program.

The possibility of a resolution criticizing Iran being passed at the board attracted sharp diplomatic comment in the run-up to the meeting.

“The Europeans have started a wrong move by supporting the US in the board of governors,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Monday.

“We think this move will lead to the situation becoming disorganized,” he said, according to the official Irna agency.

While US President Joe Biden has said he is willing to bring the United States back to the 2015 deal, on Sunday Iran said the time was “not suitable” to hold an informal meeting with the US and the remaining parties to the accord — France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses in a conference in Tehran, Iran, February 23, 2021. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Diplomatic sources say that no decision has yet been taken by European states on whether or not to put forward a resolution as Iran will only be discussed later in the week at the meeting, being held via videoconference.

‘Unfortunate miscalculation’

Russia has made clear its opposition to the prospect of a resolution criticizing Iran.

Russian Ambassador to the IAEA Mikhail Ulyanov tweeted on Monday that such a move would be an “unfortunate miscalculation.”

Earlier he had said that “the common responsibility of all 35 Governors is to ensure that the debates (even heated) do not negatively affect diplomatic efforts aimed at full restoration of #JCPOA,” using the formal name for the 2015 deal.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister also blasted Washington for US strikes on Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria last week, saying the move threatened to scupper talks.

“There is no doubt that influential forces in Washington have taken steps in order to derail this meeting,” Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by Russian state news agency TASS as saying.

The JCPOA was sent into disarray when former US President Donald Trump dramatically withdrew from it in 2018 and went on to impose swingeing economic sanctions on Iran.

“We are running against time,” Ulyanov said.

Zarif said that Iran hoped “that reason will prevail” at this week’s meeting.

“If it does not we do have solutions,” he said, without specifying what these were.

Mikhail Ulyanov, then head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s arms control and non-proliferation department, speaks at a news conference in Moscow, Russia, November 2, 2017. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

In a document circulated to IAEA member states ahead of this week’s meeting, the Iranian mission to the organization said a critical resolution would be “counterproductive and destructive.”

The document also said the introduction of such a resolution would mark the “end” of the agreement reached with the IAEA last month to mitigate the impact of reduced inspections.

Under that temporary three-month arrangement, Iran has pledged to keep recordings “of some activities and monitoring equipment” and hand them over to the IAEA when US sanctions are lifted.

If a resolution censuring Iran is passed, it would be the first such resolution since June, which was itself the first in eight years.

‘Time bought’ by deal

Diplomatic sources say the Iranian attempt at “blackmail” over a possible resolution has gone down badly among European states.

The latest tensions come after weeks in which Iran has continued breaking the limits laid down in the 2015 deal, for example by enriching uranium to 20 percent and producing uranium metal.

Tehran insists it has the right to take these steps in retaliation for American sanctions, and that the measures can be reversed as soon as sanctions are lifted.

According to Kelsey Davenport, director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association think tank, “the US would be foolish to waste the time bought” by the temporary agreement hammered out between Iran and the IAEA.

“It would be positive to have a concrete reciprocal action from the US acknowledging that Iran showed some restraint by negotiating this technical understanding,” she said.

“It is manageable in the short term but if drags on too long, it will start impacting the future of the nuclear deal and it will erode confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” Davenport told AFP.

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