Iran has agreed to let the United Nations atomic agency monitor its production of critical centrifuge parts, ending a three-month deadlock and averting a fresh diplomatic clash with the U.S.
The Iranian move offers a sliver of hope for negotiations between Iran, the U.S. and other powers on restoring the 2015 nuclear accord, by removing one of the plethora of issues of concern to Western officials. Diplomats say those talks remain deadlocked.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran has agreed to allow inspectors to replace cameras before the end of the month at an assembly plant in Karaj, a city west of Tehran, where rotors and bellows for centrifuges are made, allowing the agency to monitor activity. Centrifuges are used to enrich uranium to higher levels of purity.
Iran resumed the production of advanced centrifuge parts at Karaj in late August, with no international monitoring. That raised the prospect of centrifuges being manufactured and set aside for a future covert nuclear-weapons program, although there is no evidence of Iran doing that.
The U.S., the IAEA and European powers had urged Tehran to allow agency cameras to be reinstalled. Washington warned it could summon an emergency meeting of the IAEA board this month if the issue wasn’t resolved. Iran has repeatedly warned that in the event of any Western attempt at the IAEA to censure its activities, it could abandon the nuclear-deal negotiations.
There was no immediate comment by the U.S. mission in Vienna on whether it would still seek an IAEA meeting after Iran’s agreement to allow monitoring at Karaj.
Iran removed the cameras from Karaj after an incident in June that Iran said was Israeli sabotage that closed the plant for several months. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the allegation.
“The agreement with Iran on replacing surveillance cameras at the Karaj facility is an important development for the IAEA’s verification and monitoring activities in Iran,” IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi said Wednesday.
Mr. Grossi had hoped a deal in September with Iran would give inspectors access to Karaj to restore the cameras, but Tehran refused. Mr. Grossi traveled to Tehran last month in an effort to persuade Iran to reverse course, but there was no agreement.
Iran hasn’t accounted for missing camera footage, which the IAEA wanted to access, from one of the four cameras removed in June. It isn’t clear how the agency can reconstruct the work done at Karaj since it reopened, although Mr. Grossi said he believed that was possible.
While Iran has allowed the IAEA to continue monitoring a range of its nuclear-related sites, Tehran is keeping hold of recordings and footage. Iran has said it would only hand the material over to the agency if there is an agreement to restore the nuclear deal.
“This is a game and both the U.S. and the Europeans keep playing along. Iran gives up nothing by allowing the IAEA to change tapes; the regime still holds the tapes hostage as it does at other facilities,” said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which opposed the nuclear deal. “And all the while, Iran’s centrifuges keep spinning.”
While the Karaj agreement will defuse one issue, Western diplomats said talks in Vienna on restoring the nuclear agreement are dragging on.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has repeatedly warned that Iran’s nuclear activities mean that time is running out for diplomatic efforts to revive the deal.
Iran’s new negotiating team resumed talks with the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China on Nov. 29 for the first time under hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi, bringing a series of new demands to the talks.
Among those demands, according to senior Western diplomats, is wider access to carbon fiber, a widely used industrial material that is restricted for Iran because of its uses in nose cones for long-range missiles and to produce centrifuge rotors. The U.S. Department of Justice has charged several Iranians in recent years with seeking to export carbon fiber to Iran.