During a two day visit to Iran, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi held high level talks with Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Affairs Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and Vice-President of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI), Mohammad Eslami. The visit followed reports that particles of uranium enriched to 83.7% had been detected at Iran's underground Fordow plant when Iran had formally notified IAEA of enrichment only up to 60%. There was also an outstanding issue of uranium particles identified at three locations not normally subject to IAEA inspections.

The meeting also took place at a time when negotiation to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) had stalled. The JCPOA, signed by the USA, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany, had capped Iranian uranium enrichment at 3.67% in exchange for sanctions relief. However, in 2018, former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal and imposed crushing sanctions on Iran’s economy, prompting Iran, in turn, to increase its uranium enrichment and reduce the number of IAEA cameras monitoring its facilities.

A joint IAEA-AEOI statement issued after the meeting said the high-level meetings had “addressed the importance of taking steps in order to facilitate enhanced cooperation, to expedite as appropriate the resolution of outstanding safeguards issues”. It added: “Both sides recognise that such positive engagements can pave the way for wider agreements among state parties.”

Details of what was agreed were couched in very general terms. These included:

  • Interactions between the IAEA and Iran will be carried out in a spirit of collaboration, and in full conformity with the competences of the IAEA and the rights and obligations of the Islamic Republic of Iran, based on the comprehensive safeguards agreement.
  • Regarding the outstanding safeguards issues related to the three locations, Iran expressed its readiness to continue its cooperation and provide further information and access to address the outstanding safeguards issues.
  • Iran, on a voluntary basis will allow the IAEA to implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities. Modalities will be agreed between the two sides in the course of a technical meeting which will take place soon in Tehran.

Grossi's return from his trip two days before a quarterly meeting of the agency's 35-nation Board of Governors. A confidential IAEA report to member states seen by Reuters said Grossi "looks forward to … prompt and full implementation of the Joint Statement".

At a press conference on his return to Vienna, he noted that over the past few months, there had been a reduction in some of the monitoring activities related to cameras and other equipment, which were not operating. “We have agreed that those will be operating again,” he said. He clarified that a number of concrete actions had been agreed such as “access to information and places”. A number of technical meetings would be starting “very very soon”. He noted: “We agreed to be moving on to concrete visits, to concrete access to certain people of interest and certain material”.

Iran had also agreed to increase the number of inspections at the Fordow facility by 50% in line with its earlier decision to increase enrichment levels to 60%. On the uranium particles identified there at more than 83% enrichment, Grossi explained that often there can be fluctuations at such facilities. However, it was “worthy of investigation” and it was necessary to analyse how the centrifuge cascade operated and how it happened. In the event, he gave assurances that “there has not been any production or accumulation of uranium enriched at this level”, adding: “We have ways and means to inspect it.”

Iranian officials generally agreed with Grossi’s description of the meetings taking issue only with his statement that he would be given access to “certain people of interest”. Both AEOI spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi and AEOI head Mohammed Eslami denied any such agreement. “During the two days that Mr Grossi and his accompanying delegation were in Iran, no discussion was made of access to people and no text has been drawn up on this issue.” He added: “Of course, even if such a request had been made, it would have been definitely turned down.”

Overall, Grossi said there had been a “marked improvement in terms of my dialogue with the Iranian government”, adding: “I was heard and I think we will be seeing results soon.” However, he emphasised that the reduction in communication over the past months had resulted in a loss of information. He explained that detailed information provided by the IAEA was very important to support those trying to revive the JCPOA. “We have put a tourniquet on the bleeding of knowledge. We have agreed that this deficit will be redressed,” he said.

However, the prospects for the JCPOA currently seem bleak. While the European parties the deal are still hoping for its revival, the USA appears to be losing interest. In a statement to the United Nations Security Council, Silvio Gonzato, the EU Chargé d’Affaires, said “diplomacy and restoring the JCPOA’s full implementation” were “still the best option” over nuclear non-proliferation and that restoring the JCPOA was “instrumental to the security of the whole region…”

In October 2022, US President Joe Biden’s said the 2015 agreement iwas “dead” according to a video taken during a campaign event in California and posted online by a man who identified himself as a software engineer at Google. When Biden is asked about the issue by an unidentified woman he said talks have ceased and that the nuclear deal will not be renegotiated. “It is dead, but we are not gonna announce it. Long story,” he commented.

US officials played down but did not contradict Biden’s remarks.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said it was “certainly the case that the Iranians killed the opportunity for a swift return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA”. Security spokesman John Kirby told journalists: “We simply don’t see a deal coming together anytime soon.”

But perhaps even more telling is a very recent long article in Foreign Policy, which generally reflects White House thinking. “The time has come for the Biden administration to acknowledge that the JCPOA cannot be reinstated and to craft a new strategy that addresses the totality of the Iran challenge, not just the nuclear issue,” it said. “Changing course is never easy, and Biden’s political and diplomatic investment in the JCPOA makes it especially difficult to abandon the deal. But the agreement no longer offers a realistic pathway for mitigating the threats posed by Tehran.”

Image: IAEA Director General, Rafael Mariano Grossi (L), shakes hands with the Head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, Mohammad Eslami (R) (courtesy of IAEA/AEOI)