IAEA chief pushes for more access to Iran

IAEA chief pushes for more access to Iran

Tehran The head of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency on Tuesday met Iranian officials to press for increased access to the Islamic Republic, on the eve of the resumption of diplomatic talks over Tehran’s shattered nuclear deal with world powers.

Rafael Mariano Grossi of the International Atomic Energy Agency is once again facing rope-style talks with Iranian officials as its inspectors still have no access to surveillance footage and face greater challenges trying to monitor Tehran’s fast-growing stockpile of uranium. In the wake of President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran deal, the Islamic Republic is now enriching small amounts of uranium up to 60% – its highest levels ever and close to weapons manufacturing levels of 90%.

While Iran insists its program is peaceful, regional rival Israel has repeatedly warned that it will not allow Tehran to build a nuclear weapon, and is suspected of launching attacks targeting its program as part of the broader regional shadow war that has been raging across the Middle East in recent years. Meanwhile, the United States, under President Joe Biden, said it was ready to return to the deal, but warned that time was running out.

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All this raises the risk of a broader confrontation with Iran, which took a more difficult path ahead of the talks under the new president, Ebrahim Raisi, a subject of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

On Tuesday, Grossi went to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Iran’s civilian nuclear agency, on his third visit since February. He was scheduled to speak to Muhammad Eslami, the new head of the organization. In 2008, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Eslami “for participating in, providing support for, or directly associated with, Iran’s proliferation sensitive nuclear activities, or for developing nuclear weapons delivery systems.”

Writing on Twitter on Monday, Grossi said he hoped to “address outstanding questions” with Iranian officials.

“I hope to establish a productive and cooperative channel of direct dialogue so that (the International Atomic Energy Agency) can resume basic verification activities in the country,” Grossi wrote.

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Under a secret agreement called an “Additional Protocol” with Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency collects and analyzes images from a series of surveillance cameras installed at Iranian nuclear sites. Those cameras helped monitor Tehran’s program to see if it was complying with the nuclear deal.

Iran’s hardline parliament in December 2020 approved a bill that would suspend part of UN inspections of its nuclear facilities if European signatories do not provide an exemption from oil and banking sanctions by February. Since February, the IAEA has not been able to access images from those cameras.

Under the agreement, the IAEA placed about 2,000 tamper-proof seals on nuclear materials and equipment. These seals were electronically sent to the inspectors. Automated gauges also provide real-time data from the software. Inspectors have also been unable to access that data, which makes the task of monitoring Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium even more difficult.

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The agency also sought to monitor activities at a centrifuge parts production site near the northern city of Karaj. The International Atomic Energy Agency has not been able to get there since June after Iran said the sabotage attack by Israel had badly damaged the facility and an agency camera there.

In a separate report to IAEA member states earlier this month, the agency said Grossi was also concerned about “excessive physical inspections by inspectors of security officials of Iran’s nuclear facilities”.

Tuesday’s meeting comes ahead of a broader meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s member states. Iran avoided facing a boardroom vote of blame with a similar visit to Grossi in September.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett described Iran’s nuclear program as “in a very advanced stage”, without providing details. Before resuming nuclear talks between world powers and Iran, Bennett said he expected “a rift with our greatest friend.”

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Either way, even with a return to an agreement, Israel is of course not part of the agreement. “Israel is not bound by it,” he said at a security conference in Herzliya. “We will maintain our freedom of action.”

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Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel contributed to this report. Gambrell reported from Dubai, UAE.

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