Nuclear Inspectors Seek to Plug Gaps Observing Iran’s Program
(Bloomberg) -- Locked out of key facilities in Iran’s rapidly expanding nuclear program, international inspectors are developing contingency plans that might plug knowledge gaps should talks between the Islamic Republic and world powers fail.
Officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency are preparing their quarterly safeguards report about Iran’s nuclear activities, which they’ll present to diplomats at a meeting next month in Vienna.
Monitors have been struggling to piece together the full scope of Iran’s atomic work -- which is now enriching uranium close to weapons grade -- since Tehran’s government began restricting access to sites earlier this year in retaliation for U.S. sanctions.
As negotiations in Vienna over removing those penalties and restoring the landmark 2015 nuclear deal stumbled and are yet to resume, Iran then failed to formally extend a temporary pact that preserved video and enrichment data captured at critical installations.
Diplomats in the Austrian capital said the IAEA could now look to update a separate agreement with Iran that defines the frequency of visits to sites where uranium is processed.
The so-called Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, which Iran has so far pledged to continue honoring, requires countries to permit more access once they’ve breached defined nuclear thresholds.
Iran’s decision to begin producing uranium close to the levels needed for warheads clearly crossed the lines outlined in that agreement, according to two officials familiar with the talks, who asked not to be identified.
The IAEA’s press office declined to provide details on “confidential exchanges with member states,” according to an emailed reply to questions.
While modifying the safeguards agreement wouldn’t match the unprecedented access monitors received under the 2015 deal, the officials said that increasing the frequency of inspectors’ audits on Iran’s nuclear stockpile could assuage some concern that uranium wasn’t being diverted for non-peaceful uses.
The search for a backup plan is unfolding as Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett travels to Washington to meet with President Joe Biden. The Israeli leader will seek to convince Biden not to rejoin the 2015 deal that capped Iran’s nuclear work in exchange for sanctions relief. The New York Times reported Wednesday that Israel instead wants U.S. support for an Arab-Israeli coalition to counter Tehran’s regional influence.
The Biden administration has called for a quick return to the pact as a pathway toward a “longer and stronger” deal. But with a new hardline government taking over in Tehran, there’s considerable uncertainty over how the multiparty talks will develop once diplomats reconvene.
Meanwhile, Iran’s leaders have been courting allies in Beijing and Moscow. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin each spoke with newly-elected President Ebrahim Raisi last week about the nuclear accord. Xi said his country supports Iran’s legitimate concerns over the agreement and pledged the continued financial support of the world’s second-biggest economy.
Energy markets have been closely watching talks, anticipating a potential flood of Iranian crude should the agreement be revived. The fact that officials are now actively weighing contingency plans is another signal that’s not imminent.
The Persian Gulf nation’s nuclear capacity and stockpile of highly-enriched uranium have swelled since China, the European Union and Russia began brokering indirect talks between Iran and the U.S. in April.
In June, monitors reported they could neither verify the volume of Iran’s uranium stockpile nor the correctness of the country’s declarations.
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