Iran blends compromise and confrontation ahead of UN nuclear watchdog report

Tehran has moved to co-operate as country aims to ease nuclear-related sanctions

Technicians work at the Arak heavy water reactor's secondary circuit, as officials and media visit the site. AP
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Iran is rapidly increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium while co-operating on a number of unresolved nuclear issues, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s forthcoming report is expected to say.

Copies of the UN’s nuclear watchdog's quarterly report have been distributed to IAEA board member states ahead of the organisation's meeting on Monday.

Experts tell The National that the combination of co-operation and continued nuclear research – which could be used for military purposes – is part of a grand negotiation tactic.

“Iran's engagement with the IAEA has avoided a step back, but it doesn't necessarily mean a step forward,” says Naysan Rafati, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Seeking to ease nuclear-related sanctions, Iran is keeping the door open for further compromise or further pressure.

But any revival of the defunct 2015 nuclear deal is unlikely, experts say, in part due to other Iranian actions such as building more nuclear facilities deep underground, developing new ballistic missiles, sending weapons to Russia and cracking down on protesters, all of which have angered the US and the EU.

Bringing back the deal

The 2015 deal, reached during Barack Obama's administration, allowed UN inspectors to visit Iran's research sites, place curbs on its nuclear activities and set a limit on uranium enrichment, in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

The US pulled out of the deal in 2018, with Mr Obama's successor Donald Trump saying the deal was flawed and would allow Iran to continue military nuclear research.

Negotiations to revive it began in April 2021 in Vienna, involving the EU, US, China, Russia and Iran, but talks appeared to have stalled.

Debate has also continued between supporters of the deal who believe increasing trade and engagement will moderate Iran’s military activity in the region, and its opponents who say Iran cannot be trusted.

Relations between the US, EU and Iran have became increasingly acrimonious after Tehran gave significant military support to Russia's war in Ukraine.

Iran also seized two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman in April and early May, both linked to US interests, after the US took hold of a tanker suspected of carrying sanctioned Iranian oil.

“The bigger picture is precisely why the US and Europeans no longer believe the draft [nuclear] agreement discussed last year is no longer viable,” says Mr Rafati.

“The transfer of arms to Russia, the internal crackdown in response to anti-government protests, as well as continued tension in the region, like the tanker seizures, all make diplomatic engagement less palatable, even as the stakes, especially on the nuclear issue, become more significant.”

Unexplained uranium

The IAEA quarterly report will partly confirm a claim in Iranian media this week that investigations into man-made uranium particles detected at two sites in Iran have been resolved.

The watchdog repeatedly asked Iran to provide “credible explanations” as to how the particles reached four sites and, in some cases were enriched to more than 80 per cent – close to the 90 per cent level required for a nuclear bomb.

Iran unveils latest ballistic missile

Iran unveils latest ballistic missile

In 2021, the IAEA expressed “deep concern that nuclear material had been present at these undeclared locations”.

The IAEA has apparently said the issue has been resolved at the massive underground site at Fordow, which has been constructed with concrete bunkers within mountains near Qom, thought to be bombproof by some experts.

An investigation at another site, Marivan, is said to now be closed, although no detail has been provided as to why the IAEA found Iran’s explanation of the particles to be credible.

The last IAEA last quarterly report in March said the agency had detected uranium particles at a nuclear fuel enrichment plant at Fordow “that were enriched to a level inconsistent with the level currently declared by Iran”.

The other two sites investigated by the IAEA were facilities at Turquzabad and Varamim.

In a further act of co-operation, Iran is allowing the IAEA to reinstall monitoring cameras at several sites involved in making centrifuges to enrich uranium, and at sites where the process is continuing.

Iran removed about 27 cameras last summer following a wave of mysterious sabotage attacks on nuclear facilities, which they blamed on Israeli secret services.

But some Iranian officials also accused the IAEA of complicity in the sabotage, a charge the organisation denies.

According to the IAEA's forthcoming report, seen by AFP, Iran's enriched uranium stockpile as of May 13 was estimated at 4,744.5 kilograms, or 23 times the limit agreed under the nuclear deal.

Outstanding issues

Despite the compromises, experts are not optimistic.

“There are still a number of safeguards issues from the March agreement that haven't been resolved or only partially addressed, and Iran's enrichment activity continues apace.

"That may help avert another showdown at the Board of Governors next week, but a resumption of wider nuclear deal negotiations remains some ways off,” says Mr Rafati.

Safeguards agreements are intended for countries to demonstrate a commitment to peaceful, rather than military nuclear research.

Citing US intelligence reports, US military chief Gen Mike Milley said Iran could be just six months away from testing a nuclear device.

Experts say Iran is not only seeking sanctions relief and the unfreezing of funds — $7 billion held in banks in South Korea alone — but is also using the co-operation tactic as another negotiation card alongside talks over dual national hostages held by Tehran, some of them US-Iranian citizens.

“This is yet another ‘flexible move’ engineered by the regime just to give those in Europe and the US administration who look for a reason to resume nuclear talks something to do just that. But for now it is more about the funds and the imprisoned US citizens,” says Farzin Nadimi, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“They need money to stabilise the domestic front, and they need to soften up the IAEA to dodge any possibility of a trigger mechanism,” he says, referring to UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which could trigger a fresh wave of sanctions against Iran if the organisation reports continued violations of the 2015 deal.

“They also need more time to finish up their tunnels and move their machinery into them,” Mr Nadimi says.

According to the US Centre for Non-proliferation Studies in California, new satellite imagery shows Iran is building new underground nuclear facilities in the Zagros mountains.

“There are a lot of moving parts that would have to fall into place to conclude an arrangement,” Mr Rafati says of the various issues in play that are “somewhat uncoupled from the nuclear file”.

“It's far from certain that it would lead to breakthroughs on the nuclear issue, where there are considerable gaps between the two sides,” he said.

Updated: June 02, 2023, 1:11 PM