Iran’s belated decision this week to allow inspectors from the United Nations’ atomic watchdog access to two suspected nuclear sites needs to be seen against the background of Iran’s diplomatic offensive to have the international arms embargo lifted.
Iran and the UN-sponsored International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been at loggerheads for several months over complaints by nuclear inspectors that Iran has been denying them access to two sites at Marizan and Amad that they suspect are linked to the country’s controversial nuclear programme. UN inspectors believe that the sites have been used for developing and storing nuclear material related to the country’s clandestine nuclear weapons programme, which the CIA believes was active until 2003.
Nuclear experts at the IAEA believe the sites were active in the early 2000s, but Tehran has consistently refused to allow UN inspectors access to the sites despite signing the controversial 2015 nuclear deal with the world’s major powers.
The stand-off between Tehran and the IAEA over the sites, together with disputes over other unresolved issues, prompted the organisation to take the unprecedented step of publishing a special report in March about the unanswered questions that remained about Iran’s nuclear activities, and the lack of co-operation inspectors had received from Tehran.
This was followed in June when the IAEA’s Board of Governors, led by the US and the European signatories to the deal, Britain, France and Germany, issued a rare condemnation of Iran for stonewalling its nuclear inspectors and called on the country to allow the agency access to two undeclared sites. The resolution was the first time the organisation had formally criticised the Islamic Republic since 2012.
Since then a senior team of IAEA officials have been involved in talks with Dr Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran, to resolve the dispute. A breakthrough was made earlier this month when Tehran signalled it would end its opposition to the inspectors visiting the disputed sites.
This led to IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi travelling to Tehran earlier this week for meetings with key Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Dr Salehi.
In a joint statement issued after the meetings on Wednesday, the IAEA and Iran announced that they had reached an agreement on dates for access and verification activities “after intensive bilateral consultations.”
There will, of course, be a degree of scepticism over whether Iran will actually comply with the terms of the agreement signed by Mr Grossi and Dr Salehi, or indulge in the prevarication tactics that have characterised Iran’s dealings with the IAEA over more than two decades.
Indeed, the imposition of an arms embargo against Tehran was first undertaken in 2007 after the Iranian regime was accused of failing to co-operate fully with the IAEA over its nuclear programme.
But while a number of serious questions still remain about Iran’s nuclear activities, such as the activities carried out at undeclared nuclear sites and the exact size of the stockpiles of nuclear material Iran has developed since signing the 2015 deal, Iran’s main priority now is to get UN arms embargo lifted when it comes up for renewal in October.
And on that front, all the indications are that Tehran may well achieve its goal.
Iran, backed by China and Russia, insists that the arms embargo that was imposed under a number of UN Security Council resolutions is no longer valid because of the Trump administration’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal in 2018.
Washington insists this is not the case, and that the nuclear deal is separate from the arms embargo issue. But attempts by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to persuade European leaders to support Washington’s position have so far met with little success, prompting Mr Pompeo to accuse Washington’s European allies of “siding with the ayatollahs.”
The diplomatic stand-off at the UN has certainly encouraged Iran in the belief that it can win enough international support to have the arms embargo lifted in October, thereby allowing Tehran to buy arms on the international market for decades. Russia and China, in particular, have indicated they are looking to negotiate arms deals with Tehran once the embargo is lifted.
For this reason Tehran is now trying to demonstrate its willingness to co-operate with the UN by resolving the dispute over allowing inspectors access to disputed nuclear sites.”
As one Western diplomat with knowledge of the negotiations told me: “Iran’s priority is to get the arms embargo lifted, which the Iranian government believes would be a major diplomatic coup against the US. This explains Tehran’s decision to end its differences with the IAEA.
“The big question is whether Tehran will abide by its undertakings to allow new inspections or continue to frustrate IAEA inspectors?”
Certainly, the deal between the IAEA and Tehran, which is due to be discussed at a meeting of the nuclear deal’s signatories in Vienna on Tuesday, is unlikely to make much impact on the Trump administration’s hostile attitude towards Iran.
On the contrary, Mr Pompeo has made it clear that even without the support of America’s allies in Europe, Washington will continue to press for the continuation of the arms embargo, irrespective of whether the nuclear deal continues or not.
To this end Mr Pompeo travelled to the UN earlier this month in an attempt to persuade the body to maintain the sanctions by filing a formal complaint accusing Iran of breaching its obligations.
But earlier this week the US initiative was rejected by the UN Security Council after the body, which is currently chaired by Indonesia, declared that it was "not in a position to take further action" on Washington's request, citing a lack of consensus in the 15-member body. Among those who opposed the US move were Britain, France and Germany.
The UN’s decision now leaves the US isolated, a situation that raises the terrifying prospect of the arms embargo being lifted, thereby allowing Iran the freedom to buy arms on the open market.
Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National