Over the weekend of September 11th, Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), will visit Iran for talks to try and ease a standoff that has emerged between Iran and the Western world over the former’s nuclear program. Earlier this same week, the U.N. atomic watchdog criticized Iran for obstructing an investigation into past activities and jeopardizing ongoing monitoring work. Iran now risks punishment from the 35-member Board of Governors of the IAEA when the group meets next week, and this could ultimately spoil negotiations on reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal).
Speaking in Germany on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said time was running out for Iran to return to the deal. “I’m not going to put a date on it but we are getting closer to the point at which a strict return to compliance with the JCPOA (nuclear deal) does not reproduce the benefits that agreement achieved.” Among other conditions, 2015’s JCPOA set firm limits for Iran’s uranium enrichment and centrifuge installation, as well as establishing a comprehensive international observation regime. Fundamentally, the deal’s purpose was to prevent Iran’s nuclear proliferation and ensure the nation stuck to its commitments underneath the UN’s Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
In doing so, Iran would see international sanctions eased, giving the nation the opportunity to build and benefit from crucial economic connections. However, the continued implementation of the deal has seen multiple obstacles. In 2018, the United States withdrew from the JCPOA and reimposed unilateral sanctions on Iran. The Iranian response was to continuously violate the terms of the agreement, but the Biden Administration has shown itself ready and willing to rejoin the deal regardless. However, recent IAEA reports put this all at risk.
On September 7th, the IAEA issued two reports to member states that noted a lack of progress on major issues. Uranium traces at several old, undeclared sites remained unexplained, and Iran had failed to grant urgent access to monitoring equipment to ensure the agency could continue its observation. “The Agency’s confidence that it can maintain continuity of knowledge is declining over time and has now significantly further declined,” one of the two reports said, adding that while the agency needs to access the equipment every three months, it had not had access since May 25th. “This confidence will continue to decline unless the situation is immediately rectified by Iran.” The IAEA also expressed its unhappiness with Iran for its failure to answer key questions about its nuclear sites, with a fourth location that has remained unseen by IAEA inspectors.
Grossi’s visit to Iran will be closely watched by countries on the IAEA Board of Governors. If Iran grants access to monitoring equipment or provides answers regarding the presence of uranium particles at undeclared former sites, it may prevent the IAEA from increasing its pressure on Iran. However, should Iran continue to stonewall then nations on the IAEA may feel their hand forced, and this would jeopardise the resumption of any nuclear talks. For this reason alone, it is crucial that this situation is handled delicately.
Iran’s acquisition of nuclear material has always been treated as the precursor for nuclear proliferation, and it has historically been difficult – if not impossible – to get a nation to willingly denuclearise. If talks fall apart and Iran pulls away from international observation, then it becomes increasingly difficult to monitor the progress of these developments. Likewise, it may give fuel to those in foreign administrations who want to see regime change in the nation, opening the path for further sanctions or even military action. Both situations would cause greater suffering for those living under Iranian rule.
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