Iran agrees to install UN monitoring cameras at key nuclear sites

Agreement is a rare step forward in stalled talks on a renewed nuclear accord

FILE - This file photo released Nov. 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. The facility lost power Sunday, April 11, 2021, just hours after starting up new advanced centrifuges capable of enriching uranium faster, the latest incident to strike the site amid negotiations over the tattered atomic accord with world powers. Iran on Sunday described the blackout an act of “nuclear terrorism,” raising regional tensions. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

Iran has agreed for the International Atomic Energy Agency – the UN organisation that monitors global civilian and military nuclear activities – to install cameras at its Natanz nuclear site.

Natanz has long housed uranium enrichment centrifuges, devices designed to spin at high speed, using centrifugal force to concentrate uranium to levels where it could be further enriched for use in a nuclear weapon.

The site is believed to have suffered several sabotage attempts by Israelis or people working on behalf of the Israeli government, and much of the site is hidden underground to protect it from aerial attack.

Israel has not commented on alleged sabotage attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. Iran also accused Israel of sabotaging a separate nuclear facility at Karaj in June last year, damaging cameras that had been installed by the IAEA.

Iran then refused to allow the IAEA access to the Karaj site.

The agreement is a rare step forward in stalled talks in Vienna between Iran, the EU, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany.

Talks on restoring the 2015 nuclear deal, under which most sanctions on Iran were lifted in exchange for nuclear inspectors to have access to atomic research and development sites, have not progressed despite repeated assurances from Iranian, Russian and European diplomats that a breakthrough could be close.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 further complicated the talks, as Washington, Europe and Asian allies including Japan and South Korea placed stringent trade sanctions on Russia. Moscow briefly tied any support for a nuclear deal to sanctions relief on itself and Iran.

The IAEA said it installed cameras and removed seals from machines at the Natanz workshop on Tuesday. Those machines will be used to make centrifuge rotor tubes and bellows, crucial parts for the devices.

Iranian media later on Thursday acknowledged the installation of the cameras and said that all footage from them would be held by Iran – and not given to the IAEA – during the stand-off over the nuclear deal.

Iran has been holding footage from IAEA surveillance cameras since February 2021 as a pressure tactic to restore the nuclear accord.

On Wednesday, “Iran informed the agency that the machines would start operating at the new workshop the same day”, the IAEA said. It did not elaborate on the location of the workshop at Natanz, a vast facility that includes laboratories and enrichment halls buried underground to protect them from air strikes.

Natanz became a flashpoint for western fears about Iran’s nuclear programme in 2002, when satellite photos showed Iran building an underground facility at the site, about 200 kilometres south of the capital, Tehran.

Iran insists that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes. However, US intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe Iran had an organised military nuclear programme up until 2003.

In July 2020, Natanz was on the end of an attack that blew up a centrifuge assembly building. In April 2021, a sabotage attack in its underground halls destroyed centrifuges. Iran since has begun building a new extension to Natanz in a nearby mountain, expected to further protect the site.

Israel, also suspected in the killing of a scientist who founded Iran's nuclear military programme, has hinted it carried out the Natanz attacks.

The camera installation comes as efforts to restore the nuclear deal, under which Tehran limited its enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, appear deadlocked over an Iranian demand for America to delist the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation.

Despite repeated Iranian claims that a separate deal would allow billions of dollars in assets to be unfrozen, the State Department reiterated that no deal is imminent on either a prisoner swap or the nuclear deal.

“Our partners have not released these restricted funds to Iran, nor has the United States authorised or approved any such transfer of restricted funds to Iran,” the State Department said on Wednesday.

Updated: April 14, 2022, 2:21 PM