Europe toughens tone against Iran and condemns IAEA inspection limits

The resolution will be tabled just days after Tehran's refusal to start informal talks with Washington
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) meets with the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Grossi (R) in Tehran on 21 February 2021.

PHOTO/AFP  -   Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) meets with the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Grossi (R) in Tehran on 21 February 2021.

On Monday 22 February, Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Kazem Gharibabadi, announced that IAEA inspections would continue, albeit with less access, after having threatened to suspend them altogether.  

Faced with this decision, the European partners in the nuclear agreement have opted to toughen their stance against Iran and to present a resolution to the IAEA this week condemning the limitation of inspections, according to diplomatic sources on Monday.  

In a document consulted by the AFP news agency, Germany, France and Britain "express serious concerns" and "call on Iran to immediately resume" the entire inspection programme provided for in the 2015 agreement.  

Instalaciones de enriquecimiento de uranio de Natanz, a 250 km al sur de la capital iraní, Teherán
REUTERS/RAHEB HOMAVANDI - Uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, 250 km south of Iran's capital Tehran

The European countries' resolution will be supported by the United States and put to a vote at the IAEA Board of Governors on Friday, although there is no unanimity among the other signatories to the pact. Russia has warned against "clumsy and irresponsible steps which can (even will) undermine the prospects for full restoration of JCPOA in near future through businesslike negotiations."

The Iranian foreign ministry said in an informal note to member states, also consulted by AFP, that the European countries' decision not to "take into account constructive exchanges with the Agency will be absolutely counterproductive and destructive".  

In the past, and more specifically in June 2020, the European partners had already warned Iran within the framework of the IAEA against refusing access to two suspect sites.  

Un técnico trabaja en la Instalación de Conversión de Uranio en las afueras de la ciudad de Isfahan
PHOTO/AP - A technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility on the outskirts of the city of Isfahan.

If the European resolution goes through, Tehran has threatened to "terminate" the temporary technical agreement signed on 21 February with the IAEA, which allows the agency to maintain some, albeit reduced, monitoring until diplomatic talks to revive the 2015 agreement resume.  

The Islamic Republic claims to have "in good faith granted a reprieve" by agreeing to provide the IAEA with all data from cameras and other monitoring tools if sanctions are lifted within three months.  

For his part, IAEA director Rafael Grossi has warned that they will not be "bargaining chips" to revive the US-Iran dialogue. Since the start of the 2015 agreement, the agency has conducted 170 additional inspections based on the protocols. "Having inspections and transparency is not a prize, nor a fine, it is the essence of our work," Grossi said.

El director general del Organismo Internacional de Energía Atómica, OIEA, el argentino Rafael Mariano Grossi, llega para el inicio de la reunión de la Junta de Gobernadores del OIEA en el Centro Internacional de Viena, Austria, el lunes 1 de marzo de 2021
AP/RONALD ZAK - The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi of Argentina, arrives for the start of the IAEA Board of Governors meeting at the Vienna International Centre, Austria, Monday, March 1, 2021.

The Arms Control Association's director of non-proliferation policy, Kelsey Davenport, is optimistic, telling AFP that Iran "has shown restraint in negotiating with the IAEA" and calling for a "concrete gesture" from the US. He believes that "in the short term" the agency can continue its work, but that "if the situation is prolonged, the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear programme will be affected". 

The 2015 nuclear deal, officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has been severely wounded since former US president Donald Trump ordered an exit from the agreement and the imposition of more sanctions.  

The new president, Joe Biden, promised on the campaign trail to return if Iran complies with the 2015 deal, but Tehran has thrown the ball in Washington's court, warning that it will not comply until sanctions are lifted.  

Mapa de Irán con las principales instalaciones nucleares
AFP/AFP - Map of Iran with main nuclear facilities

At the moment, it seems that the reactivation of the deal is stalled, even more so after Iran's refusal on Sunday to the European Union's proposal to start informal talks with the United States.  

"Considering the recent actions and statements by the United States and three European powers, Iran does not consider this the time to hold an informal meeting," said Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, who also accused "the Biden administration has continued Trump's failed policy of maximum pressure and there has still been no change in the US positions and behaviour yet", in a clear reference to the US bombing of pro-Iranian militia positions in Syria last week.