Iran nuclear talks enter deep freeze ahead of midterms

In appropriately understated language, the head of the UN nuclear watchdog, Rafael Grossi, vented his frustration to reporters Monday in Vienna: “Engagement with Iran is not at the point I would really like to see.”

Indirect talks between the US, Iran and other world powers are aimed at restoring the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, which lifted many international sanctions against Iran in exchange for strict limits on its nuclear program. The deal has been in effect since 2018, when then-President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of the deal and reimposed a wide range of sanctions.

In mid-August, Iran appeared ready to drop a major demand stalling the talks – an express guarantee that the UN nuclear watchdog’s investigation into its past nuclear activities would be immediately ended. European as well as American diplomats saw the apparent resolution of the issue as an encouraging sign that Iran was ready to make the deal.

But the talks have broken down again since early September, when Iran reopened the probe and demanded additional guarantees that would secure Tehran’s economic benefits from a new deal. The talks now appear headed for a stalemate until the US mid-term elections on November 8, according to European diplomats.

“This is the most likely scenario,” said a senior European diplomat.

The diplomat also said that for the time being, further negotiations on a draft agreement are “at an end”. The US response to Iran’s latest demands, which is still pending, is unlikely to lead to further changes to the document.

Under US law, Congress must get a vote on any new Iran deal after a 30-day review period. In the midst of a heated election campaign in Washington, the choice to undertake such a controversial vote and debate is highly unlikely, according to European diplomats.

In its latest pushback on the latest proposal on September 1, Tehran doubled down on its demand for assurances that an investigation into the origin of nuclear traces found at three sites in Iran would end before so-called re-enforcement day – which will take place 120 days after signing a new deal.

Washington and its European partners flatly rejected that request, saying the investigation would only end after the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed it had received explanations from Iran that were “technically credible.”

Western countries have tried to keep the investigation separate from the nuclear deal and are reluctant to link the two issues. They believe the nuclear traces could be evidence that Iran had a secret nuclear weapons program that was active until about 2003.

“In recent weeks we have filled some gaps. Iran has backed away from some external demands — demands unrelated to the JCPOA itself,” US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in Brussels last week. “However, the last answer takes us back. And we have no intention of agreeing to a deal that does not meet our ultimate requirements. … If we make a deal, it is only because it will improve our national security.”

In its latest confidential report on the matter, distributed to member states last week and seen by POLITICO, the IAEA said “Iran has not engaged the Agency” on the investigation. “Therefore, there has been no development during this reporting period and none of the outstanding issues have been resolved,” the report said.

Behruz Kamalvandi, a senior official at Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, was quoted by the Fars news agency as describing the IAEA report as a repeat of previous baseless accusations for “political purposes”.

Asked about it at Monday’s press conference, Grossi said he was “sorry” about it but that the allegation was “nothing new.”

“This question is very clear. We have found traces of uranium in places that were never declared and where there should never have been nuclear activity, and we are asking questions,” the IAEA director general said. “Explain to me why this is a political use of my power? This is what the IAEA should do.

Grossi confirmed to POLITICO that there are currently no high-level meetings planned between the IAEA and Iran to discuss the investigation.

France, Germany and the United Kingdom – the three European powers that have been parties to the 2015 nuclear deal – issued a joint statement on Friday also expressing their disappointment at the situation.

“This latest request raises serious doubts about Iran’s intentions and commitment to a successful outcome of the JCPOA,” the three countries said, referring to the deal’s official name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The top Western diplomat said the IAEA’s Board of Governors, meeting in Vienna this week, was unlikely to pass another resolution criticizing Iran for its lack of cooperation. But the issue will certainly be discussed by the Board, the diplomat added.

Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear program continues to grow.

In a second confidential report sent to member states last week, the UN nuclear watchdog estimated that Iran has 55.6 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent, an increase of 12.5 kilograms since May.

Enrichment to 60 percent fissile purity can easily be converted to weapons grade 90 percent. Experts say Iran’s current stockpile of 60 percent enriched uranium is enough for a nuclear bomb if further enriched. Building a real weapon, however, requires additional steps and time, as well as a decision by the Iranian regime to do so.

The IAEA report, seen by POLITICO, also said Iran’s total stockpile of enriched uranium rose to 3,940.9 kilograms, an increase of 131.6 kilograms since May.

Under the original 2015 nuclear deal, Iran was allowed to enrich uranium to 3.67 percent – enough for medical purposes – and its total stockpile could not exceed 300 kilograms.

Iran has also dramatically stepped up its use of advanced centrifuges, all of which are banned under the original 2015 nuclear deal.

In its report, the agency said Iran’s removal of IAEA cameras in June posed “significant challenges” for inspectors to “confirm the consistency of Iran’s declared centrifuge inventory.”

In other words, the agency issued a clear warning that it may not be able to determine exactly how many centrifuges Iran is spinning — even if the camera footage is returned to the agency and Iran cooperates with the IAEA on a restored nuclear deal.

“Iran’s decision to remove all Agency equipment previously installed in Iran for surveillance and monitoring activities in connection with the JCPOA also had detrimental consequences for the Agency’s ability to provide assurance on the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” the report concluded .

Iran has long maintained that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.

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