Amid a diplomatic impasse in Vienna over the nuclear deal, Tehran takes further escalatory steps that raise the spectre of a diplomatic solution

Iran announces withdrawal of 27 IAEA cameras, making monitoring of its nuclear programme more difficult

AP/Organisation of Atomic Energy of Iran via - File photo, technicians work on the secondary circuit of the Arak heavy water reactor, as officials and media visit the site, near Arak, Iran.

On Thursday, Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it would withdraw up to 27 cameras and other surveillance equipment operated by the agency to monitor the Islamic Republic's nuclear sites, under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iranian Nuclear Deal.

This move would make it impossible for the IAEA to monitor Iranian nuclear activities, according to IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi. Subtracting these devices, the IAEA would still have "about 40 cameras", but "basically" all the extra cameras installed under the JCPOA would be disconnected, according to the director general. 

El director general del Organismo Internacional de Energía Atómica (OIEA), Rafael Grossi PHOTO/WANA (Agencia de Noticias de Asia Occidental)

Calling the Persian country's actions a "serious challenge", Grossi said the chances of returning to the PAIC would be reduced as a result. "This would be a fatal blow to the negotiations," the director general said. Earlier, Grossi had warned that "in just a few weeks" Tehran could obtain the uranium needed to make a nuclear weapon.

The announcement comes a day after Tehran pulled the plug on two more chambers in a pre-emptive move ahead of an IAEA resolution passed shortly afterwards. This one, drafted by the E3 countries (France, the UK and Germany) and the US, is the first to criticise Iran since June 2020, citing its uranium enrichment activities. The resolution was adopted by the monitoring group's Board of Governors, with 30 votes in favour, three abstentions and two votes against from Russia and China.

Instalación nuclear de agua pesada cerca de Arak.  AP/HAMID FOROUTAN

In a foreign ministry statement, Tehran condemned the resolution as "political, unconstructive and incorrect". "The adoption of the resolution, which is based on the hasty and unbalanced report of the IAEA director [Rafael Grossi] and on false and fabricated information from the Zionist regime [Israel], will only weaken the process of cooperation and interaction between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the agency," the statement continued.

Shortly afterwards, the IAEA reported that Iran had informed the agency of its plans to install new advanced IR-6 centrifuges, which allow it to enrich uranium much faster than its PAIC-permitted counterparts. These would be located at Natanz, one of the sites affected by the Persian country's withdrawal of monitoring devices. 

"Do you think we will withdraw from our positions by adopting a resolution in the Board of Governors? In the name of God and the great nation of Iran, we will not retreat a single step from our positions," Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi added in a speech. 

PHOTO/ Majid Asgaripour/WANA (Agencia de Noticias de Asia Occidental) vía REUTERS - Ebrahim Raisi, presidente de Irán durante una conferencia de prensa en Teherán

The E3 countries issued a joint statement, in which they condemned Tehran's actions, stressing that they come against a backdrop of increasing Iranian non-compliance with conditions. "These actions only aggravate the situation and complicate our efforts to restore the previous implementation of the JCPOA," the statement continued.

Nevertheless, London, Paris and Berlin are not closing the door on the deal. "We regret that Iran has not seized the diplomatic opportunity to conclude the agreement. We urge it to do so now. We are ready to close the deal," the statement adds.

For his part, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, issued a press statement warning that Iran's actions would only lead to a "deepening nuclear crisis and further economic and political isolation of Iran" and said they would complicate Washington's efforts to "return to full implementation of the JCPOA", but stopped short of condemning the Islamic Republic's actions. "We continue to press Iran to choose diplomacy and de-escalation instead," the statement concluded.

PHOTO/REUTERS - El secretario de Estado de Estados Unidos, Antony Blinken
Nuclear deal in jeopardy

The Iranian Nuclear Deal was signed in 2015 by the E3 countries, the EU, China, Russia, the US and Iran, with the aim of limiting Iran's nuclear programme to civilian technology in exchange for the removal of international sanctions, ending a crisis that had dragged on since 2003.

Although Tehran has always maintained that its programme was for peaceful purposes and never aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons, both UN experts and Western countries have accused the Islamic Republic of pursuing a military programme.

The moderate-leaning government of Hassan Rouhani and the Obama administration reached an agreement that temporarily ended the crisis, which was respected by all parties until 2018. Then, with Donald Trump in the White House, Washington unilaterally withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran, demanding domestic and foreign policy concessions under a 'maximum pressure' campaign.

PHOTO/AP  -   Donald Trump, presidente de Estados Unidos

Iran continued to comply with the treaty for a year, but faced with the unworkability of the US withdrawal, Tehran also began to gradually abandon its obligations, increasing its uranium enrichment capabilities and reducing its cooperation with the IAEA.

Joe Biden's arrival in the White House seemed to signal a potential return to the JCPOA, and since then the parties have held successive rounds of negotiations in Vienna, which have yet to reach an agreement.

In recent weeks, Iran, with a radical government since last year, issued an ultimatum to the US, demanding the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country's main military elite, from the State Department's list of terrorist organisations. But a few weeks ago, the Biden administration rejected this demand and, shortly afterwards, announced new sanctions against an Iranian oil smuggling and money laundering network it claimed was run by the IRGC. 

PHOTO/AFP - Miembros de la Guardia Revolucionaria de Irán

Josep Borrell, the head of European diplomacy, warned last weekend on his Twitter account that the negotiations were not going in the right direction. "The chances of reaching an agreement and returning to the TTIP are shrinking," said the Spanish commissioner, who nevertheless said it was still possible "with an extra effort". But there are now fears that these new Iranian actions could be the end of the negotiations. 

Iranian uranium enrichment has already reached 60 per cent purity, well above the usual requirements for civilian nuclear technology, and already close to the 90 per cent normally used in nuclear weapons. Although the Islamic Republic still has many technological issues to resolve, if it so desires, it is getting closer and closer to joining the club of nuclear powers.

Americas Coordinator: José Antonio Sierra.