Nuclear talks


As talks in Vienna enter the final stretch after 11 months, efforts to iron out outstanding issues related to Iran’s nuclear program have also gained momentum. Iran and the UN nuclear watchdog agreed on a roadmap and timeline to settle issues that have emerged as main sticking points in a painstaking endeavor to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal. Under the agreement, Iran’s nuclear agency is supposed to provide written explanations with supporting documents to questions raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about three undeclared nuclear sites no later than March 20.
The UN nuclear agency will then review the information within two weeks and submit its feedback to Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, which will be followed by a bilateral meeting in Tehran to finalize the process. By June, the UN’s nuclear watchdog chief Rafael Grossi will present the final report to the IAEA board of governors, removing a major hurdle in efforts to revive the landmark 2015 deal. The agreement was reached during Grossi’s whirlwind visit to Tehran over the weekend, even as negotiators of Iran and the world powers in Vienna continued their last-ditch efforts to clinch a deal.
The IAEA chief’s visit came amid concerns over undeclared nuclear sites in Iran and uranium traces found there, which has delayed the outcome of talks underway in Vienna since April last year. Addressing a joint news conference in Tehran with Iran’s nuclear agency chief Mohammad Eslami, Grossi emphasized that it was important to have this understanding while tying the revival of the Iran nuclear deal, also known as JCPOA, to the resolution of outstanding issues.
The outstanding issues are related to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) safeguards agreement between Iran and the UN nuclear agency, which came into force in May 1974. In its last quarterly report in November 2021, the UN nuclear watchdog had expressed “deep concern” over the presence of nuclear material at three undisclosed locations in Iran. The report said Tehran continues to stonewall its investigation into the matter, adding that the agency inspectors had been physically harassed while trying to enter the nuclear facilities in Iran.
A week after the report was released and a week before the resumption of nuclear talks in Vienna, Grossi visited Tehran and held talks with Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, wherein both sides showed readiness to continue close cooperation to resolve the outstanding issues. Since November, the two sides continued efforts at multiple levels to settle issues over Iran’s nuclear activities, in particular regarding undeclared sites.
One example was the agreement reached between Iran and the UN agency in December, under which the IAEA was allowed to replace cameras at the Karaj nuclear facility in west Tehran. Cameras at the facility, which has for long been the central focus of the UN nuclear watchdog, were damaged in a June 2021 sabotage attack, which Iran blamed on Israel. With Iran and other parties to the 2015 nuclear deal nearing an agreement in Vienna now, the focus has suddenly shifted back to issues about the NPT safeguards agreement.
Iranian officials allege that the UN nuclear watchdog is acting under the pressure of Israel, referring to reports of talks between Grossi and Israeli Premier Naftali Bennett before the former’s Tehran visit. During his meeting with Grossi in Tehran, Iran’s top diplomat Hossein Amir-Abdollahian stressed the “need for an independent, professional and impartial approach by the agency,” in an oblique reference to Israel’s influence on the IAEA.