By Kelsey Davenport
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began reinstalling cameras at certain nuclear facilities in Iran under an agreement the agency reached with Tehran in March.
IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in an April 1 interview with PBS NewsHour that the agency is “starting with the installment of cameras” and the “reconnection of some online monitoring systems.” He said the process will take a few weeks and will increase the agency’s visibility into Iran’s nuclear program. He described the reinstallation of the surveillance equipment as a “deescalation” of the tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.
After Iran in June 2022 removed surveillance cameras from certain facilities and the monitor that tracked uranium enrichment at its Natanz plant in real time, Grossi has raised concerns about the gap in IAEA monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program. He warned that the reduction in transparency would pose challenges for establishing baseline inventories in certain areas of the program, such as centrifuge component production. (See ACT, March 2023; July/August 2022.)
Iran suspended IAEA access to certain facilities in February 2021 as part of its campaign to push the United States to lift sanctions, but agreed to allow cameras to continue surveilling those locations. (See ACT, March 2021.) Tehran said it would turn over the data collected from the cameras to the IAEA if the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was restored. Since Tehran switched off the cameras in June, there has been no monitoring of these facilities.
Iran agreed to reinstall certain surveillance equipment during Grossi’s last visit to Tehran, on March 4. In the agreement, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) committed on a “voluntary basis” to allow the IAEA to “implement further appropriate verification and monitoring activities.”
But after the agreement was announced, the AEOI and IAEA offered different interpretations about what would be included under the agreement, raising questions about whether it would be implemented. (See ACT, April 2023.)
Despite Grossi’s confirmation that implementation is progressing, it is unclear how much the IAEA will benefit from the increased monitoring. Grossi did not say if Iran will permit the agency to install an online enrichment monitor at the Fordow enrichment facility. This was where the agency in January detected uranium enriched to a level of 84 percent uranium-235, well above the 60 percent U-235 level that previously was declared. (See ACT, March 2023.)
Under the JCPOA, Iran is prohibited from enriching uranium at the Fordow facility for 15 years, so the IAEA did not install an online enrichment monitor there as it did for Natanz, where Tehran is permitted to enrich under the deal.
Grossi also did not comment on whether the IAEA will have access to the recordings from the cameras or whether Tehran will turn over the data only if the JCPOA is restored or a new agreement is negotiated.
The prospects for any diplomatic agreement between the United States and Iran appear bleak. Officials from Iran and the European countries that are partners in the JCPOA (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) met in Norway in March, but the discussions on Iran’s nuclear program and the JCPOA do not appear to have led to any breakthrough.
In an April 17 interview with Foreign Policy, Colin Kahl, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, reiterated the Biden administration’s preference for resolving the nuclear crisis diplomatically, but said that the JCPOA is on life support.
In an April 18 ministerial statement, the Group of Seven industrialized countries (G-7) also expressed support for a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear crisis and referred to the JCPOA as “a useful reference.” They urged Iran to meet its nonproliferation obligations and voiced concern about the country’s nuclear advances, which have “no credible civilian justification and bring it dangerously close to actual weapon-related activities.”
The challenges are exacerbated by the political pressure on the United States and the Europeans not to engage with Iran due to its brutal crackdown on domestic protesters and support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Although the United States and the Europeans have warned Iran against continued military support for Russia, Politico reported on April 12 that Tehran is looking to obtain the chemical compounds needed for missile rocket fuel from Moscow and Beijing. The transfer of such chemicals would violate UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorses the JCPOA and prohibits Iran from importing or exporting missiles and related components without Security Council approval.
The G-7 called on Iran to “stop supporting the Russian military in its war of aggression” and to “cease transferring armed [unmanned aerial vehicles], which have been used in Ukraine.”
Regional tensions also may complicate a return to diplomacy. In an unusual move, the U.S. Navy publicly confirmed the deployment to the Middle East of a submarine capable of carrying 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Navy Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins said on April 6 that the deployment was intended to “help ensure regional maritime security and stability.” It follows a U.S. airstrike on Iranian-backed forces responsible for killing a U.S. contractor in Syria.
Israel continues to pressure the United States not to return to the JCPOA and is now pushing China to restrain Iran’s nuclear advances.
Beijing helped mediate an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March and hosted the two countries’ foreign ministers on April 6, but has shown no signs of using its influence to reduce nuclear tensions. Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said he urged Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang to “exert his influence on Iran to stop the progress on the nuclear program” during an April 17 phone call.