Sticking points in focus as Vienna nuclear talks enter last leg

Iran and International Atomic Energy Agency have agreed on roadmap to settle outstanding nuke issues.

Sticking points in focus as Vienna nuclear talks enter last leg

As talks in Vienna enter the final stretch after 11 months, efforts to iron out outstanding issues related to Iran's nuclear program have also gained momentum.

On Saturday, Iran and the UN nuclear watchdog agreed on a roadmap and timeline to settle issues that have emerged as main sticking points in a painstaking endeavor to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal.

Under the agreement, Iran’s nuclear agency is supposed to provide “written explanations” with supporting documents to questions raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about three undeclared nuclear sites no later than March 20.

The UN nuclear agency will then review the information within two weeks and submit its feedback to Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, which will be followed by a bilateral meeting in Tehran to finalize the process.

By June, the UN's nuclear watchdog chief Rafael Grossi will present the final report to the IAEA board of governors, removing a major hurdle in efforts to revive the landmark 2015 deal.

The agreement was reached during Grossi’s whirlwind visit to Tehran over the weekend, even as negotiators of Iran and the world powers in Vienna continued their last-ditch efforts to clinch a deal.

The IAEA chief’s visit came amid concerns over undeclared nuclear sites in Iran and uranium traces found there, which has delayed the outcome of talks underway in Vienna since April last year.

Addressing a joint news conference in Tehran with Iran’s nuclear agency chief Mohammad Eslami, Grossi emphasized that it was "important to have this understanding" while tying the revival of the Iran nuclear deal, also known as JCPOA, to the resolution of "outstanding issues.”

Pointing to the significance of Grossi’s Iran visit, Russia’s envoy to the IAEA, Mikhail Ulyanov, in a tweet on Sunday said the two sides had “agreed on concrete steps aimed at settling outstanding safeguards issues within a reasonable period of time,” which he called a “great achievement.”

Safeguards issues

The “outstanding” issues are related to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) safeguards agreement between Iran and the UN nuclear agency, which came into force in May 1974.

In its last quarterly report in November 2021, the UN nuclear watchdog had expressed “deep concern” over the presence of nuclear material at “three undisclosed locations” in Iran.

The report said Tehran “continues to stonewall its investigation” into the matter, adding that the agency inspectors had been “physically harassed” while trying to enter the nuclear facilities in Iran.

In response, Iran’s envoy to the Vienna-based organizations, Mohammad Reza Ghaebi, urged the agency member states to “not issue hasty or politically-motivated statements” on Iran’s cooperation with IAEA.

A week after the report was released and a week before the resumption of nuclear talks in Vienna, Grossi visited Tehran and held talks with Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, wherein both sides showed readiness to continue close cooperation to resolve the outstanding issues.

Since November, a senior Iranian diplomat told Anadolu Agency, the two sides continued efforts at multiple levels to settle issues over Iran’s nuclear activities, in particular regarding “undeclared sites.”

One example, he cited, was the “agreement” reached between Iran and the UN agency in December, under which the IAEA was allowed to replace cameras at the Karaj nuclear facility in west Tehran.

Cameras at the facility, which has for long been the central focus of the UN nuclear watchdog, were damaged in a June 2021 sabotage attack, which Iran blamed on Israel.

With Iran and other parties to the 2015 nuclear deal nearing an agreement in Vienna now, the focus has suddenly shifted back to issues about the NPT safeguards agreement.

Iranian officials allege that the UN nuclear watchdog is acting under the pressure of Israel, referring to reports of talks between Grossi and Israeli Premier Naftali Bennett before the former's Tehran visit.

During his meeting with Grossi in Tehran, Iran’s top diplomat Hossein Amir-Abdollahian stressed the “need for an independent, professional and impartial approach by the agency,” in an oblique reference to Israel’s influence on the IAEA.

The concerns in Iran primarily stem from a spike in sabotage attacks on the most sensitive nuclear sites across the country and the killing of nuclear scientists, which Tehran has repeatedly blamed on Israel.

Last month, quoting an unnamed Israeli security official, Israel’s Channel 13 said while Tel Aviv considered the deal struck in 2015 bad, the rebranded deal was likely to be “spectacularly bad.”

Hossein Mousavian, a nuclear policy specialist at Princeton University, told Anadolu Agency that the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran's nuclear program were resolved in 2015.

“After Trump’s withdrawal, the Israelis fabricated some new files for the IAEA to sabotage a possible nuclear deal,” he said. “However, if the P5+1 and Iran finalize the deal, the IAEA also would close all these manufactured files on technical outstanding issues.”

Uranium enrichment

The new IAEA quarterly report, which was leaked last week, reveals that Iran’s nuclear activities have considerably increased in recent months, even as efforts are underway to revive the 2015 deal, which would require Iran to scale back its nuclear measures in return for relief in sanctions.

The measures, confirmed by Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Mohammad Reza Ghaebi, show 60% enriched uranium at 33.2 kilograms (73 pounds), 20% at 182.1 kg (401 lbs.), 5% at 1,277.9 kg (2,817 lbs.), and 2% at 1,390 kg (3,064 lbs.).

The stock of 60% uranium enriched has nearly doubled, sparking fears in the West. For a nuclear bomb, 25 kg (55 lbs.) of 90% enriched uranium is required.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, enrichment was allowed up to 3.67% only. But, a year after the unilateral withdrawal of the US from the deal in May 2018, followed by reinstatement of sanctions, Iran began to gradually scale up its nuclear enrichment as a counter-measure.

Iranian officials have repeatedly said they are not eyeing a nuclear bomb.

Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, in his meeting with Grossi last week, reiterated the same point, while urging the UN watchdog to adopt an “impartial approach.”

In his remarks, last month, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stressed that Tehran will continue to develop “peaceful nuclear capacities” while dismissing claims that the country seeks a nuclear bomb.

“We too will be in urgent need of peaceful nuclear energy sooner or later. If we do not think about this today, tomorrow will be too late and our hands will be empty then,” he noted, adding that the world is becoming “increasingly reliant on nuclear energy.”

Despite fears and concerns, the atmosphere has significantly improved, with all parties expressing hope for an imminent agreement, pending the settlement of a few outstanding issues.

The EU's chief negotiator Enrique Mora, in a tweet on Thursday, declared that they have reached the “final stages of the Vienna talks,” adding that some “relevant issues” are still pending.

In another tweet on Monday night, he said expert-level talks and informal meetings have concluded in the Austrian capital and it is time for political decisions.

The tweet came just as Iran's lead negotiator Ali Bagheri was heading to the Vienna airport to catch a flight to Tehran for last-minute consultations.

The next few days will be critical as parties to the 2015 deal take key political decisions in their capitals, and Iran's nuclear agency puts together documents related to the country's nuclear activities and submit them to the IAEA by March 20.

Both are interlinked and can influence the outcome. So, as they say, it is not game over yet.