IAEA, Iran Clash Over Monitoring Equipment

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group

Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have clashed over Tehran’s failure to grant UN inspectors access to a sensitive nuclear facility, further darkening the prospects for reviving stalled US-Iran talks in Vienna and returning to the 2015 nuclear deal.

The latest row relates to an interim agreement that Iran reached with the UN atomic watchdog on Sep. 12 — which defused a potential crisis at the time — to provide greater insight into its nuclear activity and, more specifically, allow inspectors “to service the identified [monitoring] equipment.”

It comes amid growing fears that the nuclear advances Tehran has made since the US pulled out of the nuclear deal in 2018 have dangerously reduced the timeline for “breakout” — how long it would need to acquire enough material for a nuclear weapon. Iran has always insisted its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.

Pointing Fingers

The IAEA and Tehran traded accusations early this week, with the UN agency stating on Sunday that Iran had failed to fully honor the Sep. 12 agreement by not allowing its inspectors access to the Iran Centrifuge Technology Co. facility in Karaj, near Tehran, known by its Persian acronym TESA.

The centrifuge manufacturing site appears to have been sabotaged in June, with Iran blaming Israel, and four cameras were removed, one of which was destroyed, according to an IAEA report circulated earlier this month.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi charged that Iran’s decision to refuse the agency access to the TESA Karaj complex “was contrary to the agreed terms of the joint statement” that the two sides issued on Sep. 12, the agency said.

The US and the EU both backed Grossi on Monday, with Brussels urging Iran to grant IAEA inspectors access to the Karaj workshop without delay, and stressing the importance of resuming the Vienna talks as soon as possible “from where we left off" on Jun. 20.

The US said it was “deeply troubled” by Iran’s refusal to provide the IAEA with access to service its monitoring equipment, which it said was needed to maintain “continuity of knowledge” and to be able to quickly implement any agreement on a mutual return to compliance with the nuclear deal.

But Tehran hit back, accusing the IAEA’s statement on Sunday of being inaccurate, going beyond what was agreed, and blasting the agency for failing to condemn three “terrorist attacks” on its nuclear facilities over the past year.

Iran’s IAEA envoy Kazem Gharibabadi argued on Twitter that the “identified equipment” referred to in the joint statement did not include equipment related to the Karaj complex because it was still under security and judicial investigation, as Iran had indicated during discussions in Vienna and Tehran.

Sanction Shadow

Analysts say the latest messaging by Iran ahead of any fresh talks in Vienna, if and when they resume, has narrowed the chances of a breakthrough and an easing of US sanctions.

“That Iran appears to be doubling back on its commitments sends another negative signal about its commitment to reducing tension around the nuclear issue,” Eurasia Group said in a note on Monday, warning that the coming weeks would likely be “mired in a legal and political debate” about access to the Karaj site.

Iran’s economy has been crippled by the sanctions that were re-imposed in 2018. They have prevented Iranian crude exports from rising much above 500,000 barrels per day, despite US President Joe Biden's pledges to return to the nuclear deal.

But Iran's hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi has vowed that Tehran will not negotiate "under pressure."

Speaking remotely at the UN General Assembly in New York last week, Raisi, who is himself under US sanctions for alleged human rights abuses, reiterated his support for renewed nuclear talks only if they led to “the lifting of all oppressive sanctions.”

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