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VIENNA — Things are quiet in Vienna — and that’s becoming a problem.
As nuclear negotiators from Iran, the U.S. and other world powers continue to put off returning to the bargaining table in the Austrian capital, the bad news has started to pile up and the rhetoric is turning more pessimistic. The prolonged stalemate — ongoing since June — has some now speculating that the window to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is closing.
The latest blow came Tuesday night, when the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), presented two confidential reports, seen by POLITICO, describing Iran’s refusal to provide satisfactory answers to a probe into its past nuclear activities. The watchdog agency also said Tehran is severely obstructing the important monitoring work of international inspectors.
The agency relayed that Iran is moving even further away from the 2015 deal, under which the country curbed its nuclear activity in exchange for massive sanctions relief. The latest developments, it said, include Iran enriching 10 kilograms of uranium close to a weapons-grade level, 60 percent.
The revelations could create a moment of truth for U.S. and European officials, who have grown quieter in recent weeks after previously expressing cautious optimism earlier this year that a return to the 2015 deal was on the horizon.
During an IAEA Board of Governors meeting next week in Vienna, the countries will have to decide whether to move forward with plans to pass a resolution condemning Iran for its behavior — a delicate step that could provoke Iran’s new hard-line government to quit the talks for good.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi implied just that in a phone call with European Council President Charles Michel on Wednesday.
“An unconstructive move in the IAEA,” he said, “would also disrupt the [Vienna] negotiation process.”
Visiting Germany on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken struck a similarly dour note.
“I’m not going to put a date, but we are getting closer to the point at which a strict return to compliance … does not reproduce the benefits that that agreement achieved,” Blinken said.
But, he added, “we’re not at that point yet.”
Fraught decision awaits
The Vienna talks, which include Iran and six global powers, are an attempt to recover from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the original agreement in 2018.
But the talks stalled in June amid Iran’s presidential election, which ended with a more conservative, nuclear deal-skeptical leader coming to power.
Now, the latest IAEA reports are also making the rest of the countries involved more wary of returning to the deal. Several officials said they expected the global powers to approve the resolution condemning Iran at next week’s meeting.
“It’s hard to see how a resolution can be averted,” said one senior official, who has been following the nuclear file for many years.
And a senior Western diplomat, who has ample experience in the Iran nuclear file, made a similar observation.
“The accumulation of negative facts in the two reports cry out for the passing of a resolution,” the diplomat said.
Indeed, the first IAEA report paints a worrying picture of Iran ignoring pleas from IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi to verify the status of IAEA cameras and other surveillance equipment installed in Iran’s nuclear plants.
The cameras record nuclear activities inside Iran’s nuclear facilities and store the information on memory cards. The recordings are vital to helping the agency understand whether Iran’s nuclear activities are peaceful or part of a weapons program.
Iran promised to keep the cameras and recordings intact, according to a temporary deal Grossi struck with Iran in February. The deal became necessary after Iran decided to end regular access for inspectors to a number of nuclear sites as a result of a new domestic law.
But in order for the cameras to continue functioning, IAEA inspectors needed access to them by August 24 — and that never happened.
“This is seriously compromising the Agency’s technical capability to maintain continuity of knowledge,” warns the first report, at 14 pages long. “The situation needs to be rectified by Iran without delay.”
Iran’s lack of cooperation, said Eric Brewer, a nuclear specialist with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, “increases the risk that Iran could divert materials or technologies without the IAEA knowing about it.”
Iran did eventually allow IAEA inspectors to examine four cameras on September 4 at a facility in Karaj, a city northwest of Tehran, where centrifuges are replaced. The site was the apparent site of recent sabotage attempts. Inspectors found that one of the four cameras had been destroyed and its recordings were missing, and another camera was severely damaged.
In addition, Iran has failed to provide “necessary explanations” for the presence of nuclear material particles at four locations in Iran — a fact critics say could indicate the prior existence of a secret nuclear weapons program.
While Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, negotiations with the IAEA over the particles have been stalled since May.
In the second confidential report, the IAEA said it was “deeply concerned” about this discovery, adding that “the current locations of this nuclear material” are not known to the agency.
To talk or not to talk
All this has cast a cloud over the already uncertain nuclear talks.
Iran has not provided a date to resume negotiations in Vienna.
In his first TV interview after taking office in August, Raisi confirmed negotiations would continue but insisted he would not agree to negotiate under “pressure” from the West.
And last week, new Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said it could take “two to three months” to make a decision on the talks.
On Wednesday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said after meeting with Blinken, his U.S. counterpart, that he had recently told Iran that “two or three months is a timeframe that is much too long for us.” At this point, the two sides haven’t formally met.
The U.S. is also upping the pressure on Iran to return to the talks by sending its special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, to Russia and France this week to strategize.
Still, the senior Western diplomat held out some hope that the “broader political considerations” in the U.S., Iran and Europe might ultimately lead to a deal and a way to avoid a showdown at the IAEA Board of Governors meeting.