Sep 28, 2022 - World

Iran deal's fate comes down to "one huge obstacle"

Illustration of a question mark with a nuclear symbol as the dot on the bottom.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Iran's demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency close its investigations into its alleged past undeclared nuclear activity is the last "huge obstacle" to restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, a senior European diplomat tells Axios.

Behind the scenes: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi focused his address to the UN General Assembly on the need for guarantees that the U.S. won't abandon the deal again. But in private meetings on the sidelines of the summit, his only demands concerned the IAEA probe, according to a senior European diplomat.

  • That was confirmed by a senior U.S. official who was briefed on Raisi’s meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel.
  • The European official said the Iranians are convinced the U.S. could simply tell the IAEA to make the problem go away, but both IAEA chief Rafael Grossi and the Biden administration are adamant that the agency's concerns must be adequately addressed before the probe can be closed.
  • Those concerns relate to uranium particles found at sites by UN inspectors. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had publicly flagged those sites after Israel's Mossad stole the Iranian nuclear archives.

Behind the scenes: "At midnight on Aug. 15, we thought we had a deal," the European diplomat told Axios, describing a back-and-forth between Iranian and U.S. proposals that had narrowed in on a few technical issues.

  • But as they worked to close those issues, the Iranians for the first time made closing the IAEA investigations a precondition of the deal.
  • “Something happened in Tehran. Maybe the highest authority in Iran decided it doesn’t want a deal without being sure the investigations will be closed," the European diplomat said.

State of play: The European officials who met Raisi and other Iranian officials in New York explained that the investigations will be closed only if Iran provides reasonable explanations about the sites to the IAEA, the diplomat added.

  • The Iranians pushed back, claiming that Israel planted the uranium particles and that the U.S. and European powers could solve the issue politically.
  • "As long as they think [Secretary of State Tony] Blinken can just pick up the phone and tell Grossi to drop it, we won't get a deal," the European diplomat said.
  • The European diplomats told their Iranian counterparts that this wasn't the case, noting that immense political pressure from China on another UN agency had failed to prevent it from releasing a report into human rights violations in Xinjiang.
  • The U.S. and the European signatories to the deal are totally aligned on the need for Iran to give answers to the IAEA, and even China and Russia don't want to see the credibility of the nuclear watchdog undermined, the diplomat said.

Driving the news: A delegation led by the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, met with Grossi and his team on Monday and Tuesday in Vienna.

  • Grossi said the meeting focused on clarifying the outstanding issues regarding the investigation, tweeting: "A lot of work lies ahead of us."
  • Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told Al-Monitor on Sunday that Iran is ready to provide answers to the IAEA regarding the allegations against it, though he did not elaborate.

What to watch: A deal is unlikely to be announced prior to the U.S. midterm elections, but the European diplomat held out hope for a breakthrough prior to November's IAEA board meeting.

  • Still, the diplomat acknowledged that the Iranians are in no rush and have little regard for any deadlines the Western powers try to impose.

The bottom line: "We have one obstacle, but it is a huge obstacle," the European diplomat said.

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