UN inspectors face a “simply huge” task to check on Iran's nuclear activities if it agrees to limits on these in a “reloaded” deal with world powers, the head of the global atomic watchdog has said.
Rafael Grossi described a 12-month gap in verification of Iran's nuclear activities since it curbed access to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency last year.
He told the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) board of governors on Monday that the agency's monitoring had been “seriously affected” by this and that restoring proper inspections was essential to reviving the 2015 nuclear deal.
Talks on restoring that deal, between Iran, Britain, Germany, France, the US, China and Russia, are described by negotiators as nearing their end after a flurry of diplomacy in Vienna.
Russia's involvement threw a potential spanner into the works as it faces international isolation over its invasion of Ukraine, but a top Iranian official said on Monday that Tehran was trying to prevent this being a problem.
Iranian officials were “assessing new elements that bear on the negotiations and will accordingly seek creative ways to expedite a solution,” said Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.
France, meanwhile, said any attempt by Russia to conflate the Ukraine crisis with the talks on the Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), would be “blackmail and not diplomacy”. Mr Grossi held face-to-face talks with Russia's delegate in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, on Monday.
The JCPOA provided for sanctions to be lifted on Iran in exchange for limits on the country's stockpiling and enrichment of uranium and other nuclear activities. It was meant to stop Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, but Tehran stopped observing those limits after the US withdrew from the deal in 2018.
Iran has said it is enriching uranium to 60 per cent, far above the 3.67 per cent limit in the agreement and a level which western powers say has no plausible civilian use.
In another departure from the JCPOA, it discarded a so-called additional protocol to the pact which provided for UN inspectors to verify Iran's compliance with the deal.
Mr Grossi said he understood that a restored additional protocol “was and is and will be part of the JCPOA reloaded, if it comes to life".
But “it is quite clear that once there is a deal, if there is a deal, the work for the IAEA will be simply huge,” Mr Grossi told a press conference after the governors' meeting.
“We will have to reconcile lots of elements, technical elements and information that have not been subject to the stringent verification system that we used to have with the full JCPOA,” he said.
He joked that the year-long interruption in inspections reminded him of the expression associated with London Underground trains: “Mind the gap".
Monday's meeting came after Mr Grossi visited Tehran at the weekend and obtained an understanding to co-operate with the IAEA on an unresolved investigation into undeclared nuclear sites in Iran.
Although those inquiries are separate from the JCPOA talks, both Mr Grossi and the Iranians have suggested that resolving the first might make agreement on the second easier.
The IAEA chief said Iran had agreed to provide documents by March 20 answering the UN agency's questions about three undeclared sites.
These inquiries “are something that Iran has to comply with — with or without a JCPOA or any other agreement with any other countries,” Mr Grossi said. “This is our obligation.”