IAEA and Iran agree a compromise to allow further diplomacy on nuclear deal

23 February 2021

Following a visit to Tehran by IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, IAEA on 21 February issued a joint statement by the Vice-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) Ali Akbar Saleh, The statement “recalled and reaffirmed the spirit of cooperation and enhanced mutual trust” that led to an earlier joint statement in August 2020, and the importance of continuing that cooperation and trust.

Grossi’s visit was prompted by the imminent implementation of a law passed by the Iranian parliament that would have effectively ended IAEA monitoring of Iran’s nuclear programme. This is at a time when intensive diplomatic moves are being made to try to bring the USA back into the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran the P5+1 group of countries (the USA, UK, France, Russia, and China plus Germany) under which Iran had agreed to limit its nuclear development programme in return for the lifting of sanctions. In response US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal and reimpose sanctions in 2018, however, Iran began been steadily reviving its nuclear programme while informing the IAEA of the steps being taken.

The new Iranian law would have ended that communication and stipulated that Iran must withdraw from the “Additional Protocol”, a confidential agreement between Tehran and the IAEA reached as part of JCPOA, which allowed IAEA snap inspections of its facilities

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who played a key role in bringing about the JCPOA, said in a Press TV interview before his meeting with Grossi that under the law the IAEA would also be prevented from accessing footage from their cameras at nuclear sites. “This is not a deadline for the world. This is not an ultimatum,” he said. “This is an internal domestic issue between the parliament and the government. We have a democracy. We are supposed to implement the laws of the country. And the parliament adopted legislation — whether we like it or not.”

The joint statement said: “The AEOI informed the IAEA that in order to comply with the act passed by the Parliament of the Islamic Republic of Iran called “Strategic Action to Cease Actions and Protect the interest of Iranian Nation” (The “Law”) Iran will stop the implementation of the voluntary measures as envisaged in the JCPOA, as of 23 February 2021.”

The purpose of Grossi’s visit was to try to ensure continued IAEA access to Iran’s nuclear activities, despite the new law coming into effect, in order to allow diplomatic negotiations on the wider issues to continue. He succeeded in this. According to the joint statement, Iran and the IAEA agreed the following:

  1. That Iran continues to implement fully and without limitation its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA as before.
  2. To a temporary bilateral technical understanding, compatible with the Law, whereby the IAEA will continue with its necessary verification and monitoring activities for up to 3 months (as per technical annex).
  3. To keep the technical understanding under regular review to ensure it continues to achieve its purposes.

On his return to Vienna, Grossi told reporters that a “good” and “reasonable” result had been achieved following “very intensive” talks. “This law exists and will be applied, and the Additional Protocol will be suspended,” he said. However, IAEA and Iran had reached a “temporary, bilateral technical understanding” that would allow monitoring to continue for three months. “There will be less access, but we will be able to retain necessary verification and monitoring work,” he explained.

“We agreed that we are going to keep this understanding we reached under review constantly – so if we want to suspend it or extend it, this can be done,” he added. “The hope of the IAEA has been to be able to stabilise a situation which was very unstable. I think this technical understanding does it, so that other political consultations at other levels can take place and most importantly we can avoid a situation in which we would have been, in practical terms, flying blind.”

He concluded: “What we have agreed is something that is viable. It is useful to bridge this gap. It salvages this situation now but, of course, for a stable, sustainable situation there will have to be political negotiations and that is not up to me.”

The Iranian law was passed before Joe Biden was formally inaugurated as US President but after he won the election. The aim was to pressure the USA into rejoining the JCPOA and lifting sanctions. However, the Biden administration initially said Iran must return to full compliance with the 2015 deal before the US will re-join. Iran's leaders, on the other hand, are insisting that sanctions are lifted first.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Abbas Araqchi stressed in an interview with state TV on 21 February that stopping implementation of the Additional Protocol does not mean Iran is withdrawing from the JCPOA.

“Fifteen reports by the IAEA confirm Iran’s full compliance with the JCPOA, which amounts to documented and conclusive evidence of that claim (Iran’s abidance),” he said. “The JCPOA is a handiwork of Democrats many of whom were members of the [US] negotiating team at the time and are now by Biden’s side,” he explained. “Naturally they have the motivation to return to the JCPOA,” he added.

However, he rejected any preconditions by the US for returning to the deal, in particular holding talks with Iran through the P5+1 group. “Do they think that through talks we would accept things that we didn’t even when we were under maximum pressure?” he said. He emphasised that Washington should accept the JCPOA as it is and reiterated that Iran will begin to fully implement its obligations under the JCPOA once the US does so. “If we are supposed to hold talks in official or unofficial meetings with or without US presence, the topic of discussion will be the JCPOA only, and we won’t hold any negotiations on the ‘JCPOA Plus’ or anything else,” Araqchi noted. He stressed that Iran’s defence capabilities are not negotiable.

He also criticised the three European state parties to the nuclear deal for failing to make good on their commitments. “After the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, the Europeans stepped in and asked us to stay in the nuclear deal, so that they would compensate for the US absence and find practical solutions,” he explained. He said Iran gave the Europeans a year to deliver on their obligations. Only after Europe failed to fulfil those obligations did Iran scale down its JCPOA commitment in accordance with the provisions stipulated in the agreement.

However, Iran’s compromise agreed with IAEA has now provided a small window for further diplomacy. The initiative now lies with the USA and Europe to take advantage of this opportunity.

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