The future of talks to bring the US back into the Iran nuclear deal is under threat after the UN nuclear watchdog was unable to reach an expected agreement on how to continue to inspect Iran’s nuclear sites.
The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency was forced to postpone a planned press conference on Sunday that was due to set out details of a one-month extension of the current light-touch inspection regime amid conflicting signals from Iran over whether it would sign up to it.
The IAEA said its director general, Rafael Grossi, will continue consultations with Tehran on a technical agreement. The wider talks in Vienna on reviving the nuclear deal with the west, which Donald Trump took the US out of in 2018, are likely to collapse or be suspended if there is no agreement first between the IAEA and Iran on inspections.
The talks are to enter what is expected to be their fifth and decisive round this week, with both sides warning that big gaps still remained.
The IAEA had been hoping that a three-month deal that expired at the weekend would be extended for another month giving Iran, the other signatories to the nuclear deal and the US time to complete extensive negotiations under way in Vienna on how the US and Iran could come back into compliance with the 2015 deal.
The US president, Joe Biden, has promised to rejoin so long as Iran also ended its own breaches of the agreement.
Iranian officials had briefed at the weekend that a one-month extension of its technical agreement with the IAEA was likely to be agreed, but hardliners in the Iranian parliament insisted there would be no extension of a three-month deal.
The disagreement in part reflects the heated state of Iranian politics before the presidential elections next month. Hardliners are determined to show they will not compromise with the US and it is for the US simply to lift sanctions.
Without an extension Iran said it would be entitled to wipe video recordings made over the last three months of Iran’s nuclear activities. The IAEA does not have access to these videos, but had been promised it would once a wider settlement was reached with the US.
The US has said it will lift sanctions linked to the nuclear deal, but other sanctions linked to terrorism or human rights abuses will remain unless Iran’s behaviour changes.
Commenting on the state of the Vienna talks Anthony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said Washington has not seen yet whether Iran will do what it needs to do to come into compliance with its nuclear commitments in order to have sanctions lifted.
“Iran, I think, knows what it needs to do to come back into compliance on the nuclear side, and what we haven’t yet seen is whether Iran is ready and willing to make a decision to do what it has to do. That’s the test and we don’t yet have an answer,” he told ABC.
Iran has been steadily reducing its compliance with the nuclear deal, saying its steps were justified as a response to the US pulling out of the 2015 deal altogether in 2018.
A one-month extension would give the US, Iran and the five other signatories to the deal leeway to try to complete an agreement on how US will lift sanctions against Iran and return to the deal, in turn restoring Iran’s full compliance with the agreement.
If there is no extension, Iran said it could delete the video recordings of its sites compiled over the last three months, leaving the IAEA without information on Iran’s nuclear sites.
In a sign of the tensions inside Iran over the one-month extension Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, speaker of the parliament and a hardliner, said: “From 22 May and with the end of the three-month agreement, the agency will have no access to data collected by cameras inside the nuclear facilities agreed under the agreement.”
He gave the impression that an irrevocable decision had been made on Saturday and was backed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“Yesterday it was discussed and the decision was made. The law passed by the parliament will be implemented. The supreme leader has underlined the importance of implementing the law as well,” Qalibaf said.