IAEA’s Grossi averts crisis with Iran

25 May 2021

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said on 24 May that he had agreed with Iran to extend by one month the basic verification and monitoring activities related to Iran’s nuclear development. Grossi’s announcement, which had been expected the day before, came after intensive talks with Ali Akbar Salehi, Vice President and head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI).

Continued Iranian-IAEA co-operation is seen as an essential basis for continuing talks in Vienna on reactivation of 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 the JCPOA, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear development in return for the lifting of sanctions. However, after former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions in 2018, Iran began reviving its nuclear programme. US President Joe Biden is seeking to reinstate the JCPOA, and indirect talks began in April. However, Iran is insisting that sanctions must be lifted before it will restrict its nuclear development programme.

Stringent IAEA monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities had continued until February, when a law adopted by the Iranian parliament at the end of 2020 came into force. Under this “Strategic Action Plan to Lift Sanctions” the AEOI was instructed to increase uranium enrichment activities among other things. The law also stipulated that Iran should suspend its voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol, which allowed regular intrusive inspections of its facilities by IAEA if by February Iran's banking relations in Europe and the amount of their oil purchases from Iran had not returned to normal.

In February, Grossi visited Iran to try to ensure continued IAEA access to Iran’s nuclear activities, despite the new law coming into effect, so that diplomatic negotiations on the wider issues could continue. As a result, Iran said it would continue to implement fully and without limitation its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA as before. In addition a temporary bilateral technical understanding was reached whereby the IAEA would continue its necessary verification and monitoring activities for up to three months.

On 23 May, Iran's Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf said the agreement with the IAEA would be ending. "From 22 May and with the end of the three-month agreement, the agency will have no access to data collected by cameras inside the nuclear facilities agreed under the agreement," he told parliament. “The law passed by the parliament will be implemented.” The announcement prompted Grossi to delay a planned news conference so that he could discuss the issue with Iran. He apologised for rescheduling the briefing, which , he said, followed a "long discussion" with AEOI president Ali Akbar Salehi.

Grossi said expiration of the February Technical Understanding, would have been “a serious loss at this critical time”. Talks of the JCPOA are due to restart in the coming week and earlier reports had described them as “positive”. In the event, a compromise was reached.

Two things were agreed related to the temporary technical understanding. "We agreed, number one, that the information collected by our technical equipment at different locations in Tehran is going to be saved and will continue to be under the custody of the Agency at every site where it is at the moment. Number two, that the equipment and the verification and monitoring activities that we agreed will continue as they are now for one month, expiring then on 24 June 2021."

The temporary technical understanding had proved to be increasingly important in the last three months, he said, given that "activities" in Iran had increased "qualitatively and quantitatively". Iran’s enrichment level, limited to 3.6.5 in the JCPOA, is now at 63%.

In addition to the joint statement by Iran and Tehran three months ago, they have a number of technical documents, he said. "These detail the places where we are basically having cameras, flow meters and electronic online systems to check on the enrichment that is taking place in the different locations. He said he could not give details of sites or equipment because it relates to safeguards, and is “confidential information”.

He stressed that the temporary technical understanding is a “stop-gap measure” to avoid “flying completely blind, losing essential information”. He said if previous levels of access are restored it should make it possible to “reconstruct what may have been happening”.

The IAEA and Iran agreed in February that, on the expiry of the technical understanding, the data gathered in those three months "would be erased" Grossi said. However this is not going to happen and will be discussed again at the end of the agreement extension.

He reiterated: "I want to stress: This is not ideal. This is like an emergency device that we came up with in order to allow us to continue having these monitoring activities while at the same time recognising the fact that there was a law passed by the Parliament of the Islamic Republic of Iran suspending a number of rights. So we had to find some way." He said there were no conditions attached to the new agreement.

He noted that the important process of the JCPOA which is ongoing, does not involve the Agency, “so far”. He added: “This is one thing that I agreed with Dr Salehi, that we will keep in touch, monitoring the situation, and we will discuss what to do, according to the circumstances we are talking about on 24 June."

As to the Additional Protocol, he said "it continues to be the case" that Iran would be prepared to return to its provisional implementation if and when an agreement, in the context of the JCPOA negotiations, is reached. "There is no separate discussion about the Additional Protocol being implemented outside this framework," he said.

Asked if he was concerned about the results of the presidential elections in Iran scheduled for June, he said: "Why would that worry me? There is something in international law called 'continuity of the state'. We deal with Iran."

Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, acknowledged the agreement on Twitter. “We recommend the negotiating countries to seize the extra opportunity provided by Iran in good faith for the complete lifting of sanctions in a practical and verifiable manner," he tweeted. 

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