Iran Limits Access to Nuclear Sites but Open to Talks With U.S.


Iran said it was open to a European proposal that would bring its officials together with American negotiators for the first time since the U.S. withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, even as Tehran took another step to violate the accord by limiting international monitoring of its nuclear activities.

Tehran said Tuesday that it is weighing whether to participate in the talks suggested by European Union officials. Iran has rejected direct negotiations with the U.S., as long as American sanctions remain in place and the U.S. remains outside the 2015 deal. But European officials have warned Iran in recent days that it risks deepening its isolation if it misses the opportunity for direct talks with Biden administration officials, who would attend as guests in the informal meeting.

“These diplomatic contacts have to be discreet but I am reasonably optimistic” that Iran will join talks, the EU’s chief diplomat,

Josep Borrell,

said Monday.

Iranian government spokesman

Ali Rabiei

said Tuesday that Iran was “looking into the European side’s proposal of an informal meeting for a dialogue.”

Meanwhile, citing the U.S. refusal to lift sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, Iran on Tuesday followed through on a previous threat, saying it would no longer grant United Nations inspectors daily access to its nuclear facilities, or provide round-the-clock security footage of its activities at these sites. Iran will also bar the U.N. atomic agency from inspecting other sites where it suspects nuclear-related work might be taking place.

The moves to curb international scrutiny of its nuclear facilities marks Tehran’s latest effort to pressure the U.S. to lift sanctions. In recent months, Iran has also restarted enrichment of uranium at 20% purity, its highest level since 2013 and a relatively short step from producing weapons-grade material. Iran has also produced uranium metal, which can be used in the core of a nuclear weapon. The nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA, banned both actions.

“The E3 are united in underlining the dangerous nature of this decision,” the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany said in a statement Tuesday. “It will significantly constrain the IAEA’s access to sites and to safeguards-relevant information.

From its inception, the nuclear deal was controversial in the Middle East, where longtime American allies in Israel and the Gulf opposed the U.S.’s decision to lift sanctions on Iran and recognize its right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes, albeit under tight restrictions. A return to the deal requires a complex, diplomatic choreography, as both Washington and Tehran insist the other side has to make concessions first.

IAEA inspectors at a nuclear power plant in Iran in January 2014.



Photo:

kazem ghane/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu

warned Iran that “with or without agreements—we will do everything so that you will not arm yourselves with nuclear weapons.”

The Trump administration left the nuclear deal in May 2018 partly because it didn’t restrict Iran’s military footprint in the Middle East. Iran rebuffed former President Trump’s attempts to negotiate a broader agreement.

President Biden has said he intends to rejoin the nuclear deal if Iran comes back into compliance. Mr. Biden wants to use the deal as a starting point for talks about longer nuclear restrictions, constraining Iran’s missile program and reeling in its regional network of militias.

Iran has refused to include those core elements of its national defense in any nuclear talks.

More on Iran’s Nuclear Program

Hamid Aboutalebi, a former presidential adviser and Iranian ambassador, said Mr. Biden’s position suggests the new U.S. administration might not be sincere about adhering to the nuclear deal, but is actually aiming for the same kind of broader security agreement that Mr. Trump sought.

“The issue is whether the U.S. will ever return and commit to the JCPOA,” Mr. Aboutalebi said.

In a separate move that could help smooth the resumption of talks, South Korea, a U.S. ally, said Tuesday it was consulting with Washington to release Iranian cash it has withheld since 2019 due to sanctions. A breakthrough would provide a much-needed infusion of foreign exchange to the Iranian sanctions-battered economy.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, around $130 billion in funds, frozen under previous American sanctions, were repatriated to Iran.

Despite Iran’s repeated breaches of the nuclear deal, Tehran softened its initial position of slashing access for the International Atomic Energy Agency to a range of its nuclear related sites.

Under a deal struck over the weekend in Tehran by U.N. atomic chief

Rafael Grossi,

Iran agreed to provide footage and measurements of its declared nuclear facilities after several months if the U.S. lifts sanctions. It also agreed to provide footage of activities at sites that make key nuclear equipment, such as centrifuge rotors and uranium ore mines.

Mr. Grossi said Tuesday that it wasn’t yet clear whether Iran would carry out its threat to no longer report its plans for building new nuclear facilities or adjusting existing ones to the IAEA, a key heads-up for inspectors. Speaking at a nuclear-proliferation forum Tuesday, Mr. Grossi said failing to do so would put Iran “in violation” of their core nuclear obligations. That could lead the IAEA Board to take action against Iran, diplomats said.

While the atomic agency will lose its daily access to sites where Iran is enriching uranium, it will be able to continue monitoring Iran’s fissile material production and stockpile, and the purity of the uranium it produces through inspections. That will ensure the international community knows how much nuclear fuel Tehran has stockpiled that could be used in a nuclear weapon.

The IAEA on Tuesday circulated two confidential reports to member states on Iran’s nuclear activities. One reported that Iran was continuing to install hundreds of more advanced centrifuges at its sites at Natanz and Fordow over the past three months and that Iran’s stock of enriched uranium had reached 2,967.8 kilograms, compared with the limit of 202.8kg written into the nuclear accord. That is enough for two nuclear weapons, if refined to weapons grade, experts have said. Iran had accumulated 17 kg of uranium enriched to 20% since it started producing that material in January.

Following news that the U.S. is willing to resume nuclear talks with Iran in coming weeks, WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains one tactic that could jumpstart diplomacy between the two countries. Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann

The IAEA also confirmed that it had found undeclared uranium material at two sites that Iran had blocked access to last year. The report said Iran has so far given unsatisfactory answers to what is now the agency’s third discovery of undeclared nuclear material in 18 months. The report said Mr. Grossi had called on Iran to resolve the agency’s questions about the material “without further delay.”

The IAEA also confirmed that it had found undeclared uranium material at two sites that Iran had blocked inspectors access to last year. The report said Iran has so far given unsatisfactory answers to what is now the agency’s third discovery of undeclared nuclear material in 18 months. The report said Mr. Grossi had called on Iran to resolve the agency’s questions about the material “without further delay.”

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen@wsj.com and Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com

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