IAEA, Iran signal some progress on access to nuclear program

By Jonathan Tirone and Arsalan Shahla

The U.N. nuclear watchdog signaled progress in talks with Iranian officials in Tehran over access to the country’s expanding program, yet prospects for reviving the crippled atomic deal with world powers remain unclear.

Tehran said International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors would be able to replace damaged surveillance cameras and memory cards at atomic sites following a “constructive” meeting with IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi on Sunday.

“We managed to rectify the most urgent issue, which was the imminent loss of knowledge,” Grossi said at a press briefing following his return to Vienna. “Now we have a solution.”

The pact to ensure surveillance data isn’t lost at Iranian centrifuge workshops and uranium mines stops short of fully restoring the expanded access for IAEA monitors granted under the 2015 nuclear accord. It may buy envoys time for broader negotiations with world powers aimed at reviving the agreement.

Grossi’s said his trip to the Iranian capital, where he met with Iran’s new nuclear chief Mohammad Eslami, was intended to bridge “a major communication breakdown” that had stifled the exchange of information with his inspectors. The Argentine diplomat said he’ll return “very soon” to Tehran for discussions with the new government of President Ebrahim Raisi.

Sunday’s agreement allows IAEA surveillance cameras to continue recording activity inside key Iranian facilities. Should the broader deal be revived, which reins in Iran’s nuclear work in exchange for sanctions relief, IAEA officials will receive the camera footage. Until then, Iran’s Eslami said the old memory cards will remain sealed in Tehran.

The step reduces the likelihood of a formal censure against Iran at an IAEA board of governors meeting that starts Monday in Vienna. It effectively gives diplomats three more months, until the next board meeting in November, to revive the landmark atomic deal that the Trump administration jettisoned three years ago. Iran subsequently began accelerating its nuclear work in response to renewed U.S. economic sanctions.

Israel, which opposed the original nuclear deal, said on Sunday that Iran’s escalating atomic activity should be met with international penalties.

“The time has come for action,” said Defense Minister Benny Gantz. He added Iran was training foreign militias to use unmanned aerial vehicles, weeks after a deadly drone strike blamed on Tehran targeted an Israeli-managed tanker. Iran has denied being behind that attack and others in regional shipping lanes.

While Iran’s concession is likely to be welcomed by IAEA envoys meeting this week, Tehran still faces eventual censure over its failure to cooperate in an IAEA investigation into decades-old uranium traces found at several undeclared locations in the country.

Grossi said he sent a “complementary message” to the IAEA’s board about Iran’s responsiveness on Sunday, suggesting that formal censure may not be needed at this time. Heading into the week, some European nations still held open the possibility of a rebuke that could eventually send Iran back to the UN Security Council.

Tehran’s government has warned such a move would scuttle any remaining hope of reviving its broader accord with world powers — one that would allow Iran to return to the global oil market. The last round of talks broke down before the election of Raisi in June. The president himself warned the UN watchdog against “confrontation” earlier this month.

IAEA inspectors this week reported that Iran had increased its stockpile of enriched uranium close to the levels needed for weapons and was expanding its production capacity.

Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful, but doubts about its intentions motivated world powers to seek the original nuclear accord.

The Biden administration is interested in reviving the deal, with conditions attached, and together with Europe has been trying to coax Iran back to the table as soon as this month. Informal talks are likely on the sidelines of the IAEA’s general conference the week of Sept. 21.

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