Iran and U.N. watchdog agree on nuclear verification issue as wider negotiations struggle

VIENNA — Iran and the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency announced Wednesday that they have reached an agreement on one of the most serious outstanding verification issues between them, offering a possible breakthrough in negotiations here over Iran’s nuclear program.

In reports confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, government-affiliated Iranian news agencies said that Tehran had “voluntarily” agreed to allow the IAEA to replace monitoring cameras that were damaged by an alleged Israeli sabotage strike last summer at a facility manufacturing components for advanced uranium centrifuges.

The IAEA said that the cameras, “to be installed in the coming days, will replace those removed … earlier this year” from the facility at Karaj, southwest of Tehran. The agreement, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said, “will enable us to resume the necessary continuity of knowledge at this facility.”

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The agreement was first announced by Noor news agency, affiliated with Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian later called it a “good deal.”

The announcement came as diplomats sent mixed signals on the progress of talks to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers. The accord has largely collapsed since the Trump administration withdrew from it more than three years ago and began reimposing harsh economic sanctions on Iran. Iran, in response, began escalating its nuclear activities.

Russia’s delegation to the talks, aligned with the other world power in a desire to avoid a nuclear-armed Iran, has displayed unflagging public optimism, emphasizing the need to remain positive.

But U.S. and European officials have been far less hopeful, citing a “frustrating” lack of progress and unreasonable Iranian demands, while warning that time to reactivate the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, is running out as Iran’s nuclear program goes beyond the point of verifiable return.

Negotiations resumed late last month after a five-month hiatus following the election of a new Iranian government, led by hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi. Six earlier rounds with the previous government last spring had made what Western negotiators said was considerable progress, although no final agreement was reached over which sanctions the Biden administration would be willing to lift and what restrictions Iran would accept on its nuclear activities.

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A new Iranian delegation returned to the table with what Western diplomats said were demands that ignored earlier negotiating advances.

In an interview on Monday, Mikhail Ulyanov, the head of the Russian delegation — who met with both Iranian and U.S. negotiators over the weekend — said he had recommended that Tehran freeze its current nuclear activities and that Washington not only cease introducing new sanctions but roll back some existing measures “as a gesture of good will” to jump-start the talks.

While he suggested these moves take place “in parallel,” Ulyanov made clear that he believed the United States, which withdrew from the agreement in the first place, should take the first step. “It would be very much preferable if the United States make such a step,” he said. “It could serve as a confirmation for the Iranians that the United States is serious.”

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The administration has consistently said that all moves toward reinstating the original terms of the JCPOA must be agreed and begun simultaneously by both parties on the route to “compliance for compliance.” A senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive diplomacy, confirmed that the Ulyanov meeting had taken place and indicated there was no change in the U.S. position.

Amid ongoing mistrust, Iranian negotiators have refused to meet directly with their U.S. counterparts. Instead, the Europeans are serving as go-betweens.

The sequencing of steps that would lead to the full restoration of the agreement has been a sticking point throughout the talks. After it exited the JCPOA, the Trump administration reactivated sanctions removed under its original terms, imposing about 1,500 new measures as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign to strangle the Iranian economy.

Some of those measures were directly related to Iran’s nuclear program, while others were imposed in response to what the administration said were human rights abuses and activities related to regional conflicts and terrorism. The U.S. position has been only those related to nuclear matters — as specified by the JCPOA — should be lifted.

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In new proposals and in public statements, Iran has demanded that all U.S. sanctions imposed under the Trump administration be removed.

While Ulyanov said that “we are not far from this moment” of sanction rollback, senior European diplomats said Iran’s position was unacceptable.

“We have had many hours of engagement, and all delegations have pressed Iran to be reasonable,” the Europeans said Tuesday in a joint statement about what they described as stalemated talks.

“As of this moment, we still have not been able to get down to real negotiations. We are losing precious time dealing with new Iranian positions inconsistent with the JCPOA that go beyond” what they said was a “clearly visible” outline tentatively agreed during the previous round of talks in June.

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“But time is running out,” the Europeans said. “Without swift progress, in light of Iran’s fast-forwarding of its nuclear programme, the JCPOA will very soon become an empty shell.”

Iran waited a year after Trump’s withdrawal and the reimposition of sanctions before starting a rapid advancement of nuclear activities, which Tehran has consistently said are intended only for peaceful purposes. It has installed advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium up to 60 percent, close to weapons grade. Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran agreed to limit enrichment to 3.57 percent, as well as agreed on limits on the types of centrifuges it would operate and on stockpiles of enriched material. Its activities were to be fully inspected and monitored by the IAEA.

As the Biden administration contemplates what it would do if agreement cannot be reached, military action has not been ruled out. But the administration has indicated it would first impose more sanctions and crack down on Iranian violations of existing measures, including sanctions on oil sales. Iran has been selling significant quantities to China, which the administration — with a host of other issues to resolve with the Chinese — has largely overlooked until now.

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It remains to be seen if the resolution of the Karaj facility dispute between the IAEA and Iran will serve as an impetus to get the JCPOA negotiations moving. The Iranian statement indicated that, while it agreed to replacement of the damaged cameras, images from them will not be available to the IAEA, at least until U.S. sanctions are lifted. The IAEA statement did not mention that caveat.

A separate, and still outstanding, verification issue concerns a years-old finding of uranium traces at three sites that Iran had not previously declared as related to its nuclear program.

In its Wednesday statement, the IAEA said that “the Agency and Iran will continue to work on remaining outstanding safeguards issues with the aim of resolving them.”

DeYoung reported from Washington.