By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
Over the weekend, the head of the UN’s nuclear monitoring agency reminded the international community of the fact that the inspections regime at an Iranian nuclear facility in Karaj was still not “intact.” This was surely an understatement given that the inspections regime was effectively dismantled all across Iran in February. Rafael Grossi’s comments singling out the Karaj facility reflected the fact that there is a persistent gap in data collection there, even in the wake of an agreement that the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency struck with Iranian authorities to allow routine maintenance on monitoring equipment at various nuclear facilities.
However, it bears mentioning that that agreement was not announced until two weeks after the deadline for such maintenance, meaning that the hard drives connected to surveillance cameras and other devices had likely been full for that period of time, leaving a broad gap in knowledge which may never be filled. Meanwhile, the IAEA is forced to merely take it on faith that Iran will honor an agreement to fill in the surrounding gaps, which now stretch back more than eight months. Last year, the Iranian parliament passed a law mandating that international inspectors be kicked out of the country if US sanctions remained in place past February. Grossi’s efforts prevented the most extreme outcome but did not prevent the IAEA from having both direct and remote access to nuclear sites cut off.
It was widely reported at the time that the agency would no longer be able to monitor the goings-on at those sites through surveillance footage. What was not widely understood until much later is that inspectors were left almost entirely in the dark and were forced to rely on educated guesses in the preparation of their most recent quarterly reports on Iran’s nuclear activities and the status of the 2015 agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This month, the new head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran mocked that situation by alleging that Iran had accumulated more than 120 kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent fissile purity, whereas the IAEA’s estimate in September had been less than 90 kg.
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) October 21, 2021
This boastful commentary from Mohammad Eslami is just one of the latest examples of a longstanding strategy that might be described as nuclear blackmail. The goal of that strategy has been on clear display with the regime’s public position regarding negotiations in Vienna that are aimed at restoring the JCPOA. Six sessions of those talks took place earlier this year, but the negotiations stalled in June when Iran’s sham presidential election brought an ultra-hardline administration to power.
This is not to say that any meaningful progress had been made with the prior, allegedly moderate administration of Hassan Rouhani. His successor, Ebrahim Raisi, retained much the same talking points but has backed them up with bolder delaying tactics. Prior to their interruption, the Vienna talks had been little more than a venue for Tehran’s repeated insistence that the US suspend all the sanctions that were put back into place following its withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018. Neither the Rouhani nor the Raisi administrations have offered anything in exchange and the new Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian recently went so far as to say that the US must release 10 billion dollars in frozen assets just to prove that it is serious about pursuing a diplomatic solution.
Of course, demands such as these only prove that the Iranian regime is the one party that is least serious about achieving a mutually beneficial outcome. Each new development seems to reinforce that development. Last week, following various reassurances that the Vienna talks would resume “soon”, the Raisi administration floated the idea of holding preliminary talks in Brussels with representatives of the European Union, Britain, France, and Germany.
There is reason to believe that the UN agency has been harboring frustration with this pattern for longer than many observers realized. Grossi’s comments regarding fractured monitoring procedures in Karaj were published about two days after he acknowledged that it would be a “good idea” to formally censure the Islamic Republic for its lack of compliance and its provocative violations of the JCPOA’s terms. However, Grossi seemed reluctant to answer the question on this topic, perhaps knowing that it would be in tension with the European Union’s well-known aversion to saying anything that might upset Iranian authorities.
It is too early to say for sure, but reports of Western consensus and Grossi’s gradual turn toward open criticism may indicate that that tension is fading at last. We should certainly hope it is because if the EU and the IAEA continue to hold back efforts to demand accountability from the Iranian regime, then we can only expect Tehran to continue exploiting its impunity to demand more and more concessions, create more and more delays and all the while continue expanding a nuclear program that already has the country within months of a breakout to nuclear weapons capability.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)