May 21 Inspections Deadline Hovers Over Iran Nuclear Talks In Vienna
Vienna talks on reviving Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal are focused on what United States sanctions need lifting, and which parts of Iran’s atomic program should be reversed. But negotiators also feel the approach of a May 21 deadline as the expiry date for current arrangements for international inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The tortuous nature of the Vienna talks, where the US is involved indirectly, reflects not just the complexities of American sanctions but the challenge of coordinating sanctions-lifting with Iran curtailing its nuclear program.
After leaving the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, President Donald Trump laid a web of sanctions, some linked to ‘human rights,’ or ‘terrorism,’ but often with a stated aim of complicating efforts by a successor US administration to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).
As early as December, even before President Joe Biden took office with an aim of restoring the JCPOA, Rafael Mariano Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), stressed the need for a political agreement between Iran and world powers, including the US, on sequencing the lifting of US sanctions with Iran reversing nuclear steps taken since 2019 beyond JCPOA limits.
In February − after the Iranian parliament voted to both begin 20-percent enriching uranium, beyond the 3.67 percent JCPOA limit, and curb IAEA access – Grossi went to Tehran to agree a three-month, interim deal covering Iran’s nuclear sites. Since then, Iran has continued to allow IAEA cameras to run 24/7 but has said it may erase the footage when the deal expires on May 21, thereafter restricting agency access to the basic requirements of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
In an interview with Bloomberg TV on Thursday [April 29], Grossi expressed concern over the potential loss of data. “Let’s hope it hasn’t happened,” he said, but added he would if needsbe return to Tehran to seek a follow-on arrangement.
Few rule out a break-through in Vienna, nor the possibility that Grossi might patch up a further access agreement. But off-record briefings from Biden administration officials have suggested an agreement on restoring the JCPOA is more likely by June than mid-April, notably coinciding with the June 18 Iranian presidential election, when President Hassan Rouhani is ineligible for a third consecutive term.
Meanwhile, criticism of the Vienna process is building both in Iran, which began enriching uranium to 60 percent in response to the April 11 attack on the Natanz enrichment facility, widely attributed to Israel, and in the US.
In Washington, JCPOA opponents continue efforts to create a sense that a future Republican administration could again scotch the agreement. On Thursday, State Department spokesman Ned Price faced questions over the United Nations Economic and Social Council recently electing Iran – alongside China, Japan Lebanon and Pakistan – to the Commission on the Status of Women, which promotes global “gender equality and the empowerment of women.”
While stressing that the US had called a vote on the matter, Price would not say how it had cast its ballot in a “private” vote. Iranian opposition activists and Trump allies had already jumped on the decision.
Around the Middle East, various parties are still adjusting to the arrival of the Biden administration and the possible revival of the JCPOA. Biden officials, led by Middle East security advisor Brett McGurk are currently touring allies to discuss concerns over the talks with Iran.
Tehran is also active. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, while facing flak at home over his leaked criticism of the late general Qasem Soleimani, has in the past week visited Qatar, Iraq, Oman and Kuwait seeking to improve relations with Iran’s neighbors.