Iran starts limiting UN inspections until US lifts sanctions

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Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif (centre) greets journalists following the International Conference on the Legal-International Claims of the Holy Defense in the capital Tehran on Tuesday. AFP

Iran on February 23 said it had started to restrict some site inspections by the UN nuclear watchdog in response to the US refusal so far to lift sanctions imposed by former president Donald Trump.

The move prompted Britain, France and Germany, the three European nations party to the 2015 nuclear deal, to say they “deeply regret” the decision, and that they were “united in underlining the dangerous nature of this decision”.

“It will significantly constrain the [International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA)] access to sites” and to safeguarding information, they said.

On February 23 IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi told a seminar that the interim three-month deal agreed at talks on February 21 in Tehran was “far from an ideal situation”.

But, he added, it “allows us to continue to monitor and to register all the key activities . . . so that at the end of it we can recover all this information.

“This will facilitate . . . time for the indispensable diplomacy that will be deployed in the next few days,” he said – referring to talks between Tehran and major powers aimed at restoring the 2015 deal known as the JCPOA.

Washington’s concerns

While praising Grossi’s 11th-hour diplomacy, Washington expressed its “concern that Iran is moving in the wrong direction.

“It is moving further away from its nuclear constraints,” US Department of State spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

The changes to the IAEA’s monitoring and inspection regime, ordered by Iran’s conservative-dominated parliament last year, are the latest in a series of retaliatory measures Iran has adopted in response to Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA.

Recordings from monitoring equipment the IAEA installed at Iran’s nuclear sites to verify its compliance will now be withheld by Tehran until US President Joe Biden has lifted the crippling sanctions imposed by Trump.

So-called “voluntary transparency measures”, including snap inspections of sites not under regular monitoring – are also suspended.

However, a Vienna-based diplomat stressed that snap inspections to declared nuclear sites could be conducted even without those measures, so the impact on access would be “negligible”.

Data deadline

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) that February 23’s changes would have no major immediate impact on the work of the IAEA inspectors.

“The crux of this deal is that the data recorded on our nuclear programme . . . will be stored and not handed over to the IAEA,” Iran’s top diplomat said.

The data “had never been supplied to the IAEA in real time but had been handed over on a daily or weekly basis”, he said.

If talks on a US return to the nuclear deal drag on, that would change, however.

The Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation has said that under the new law, if there is still no lifting of US sanctions after three months, it will start erasing the recordings.

Biden has signalled readiness to revive the nuclear deal but insists Iran first return to all its nuclear commitments. His administration has said it is willing to join EU-led talks with Iran in search of a compromise.