“This whole operation was conceived as a bridge towards something.” With these words, Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), announced a partial agreement struck with the Islamic Republic of Iran that will allow the agency to reinstall surveillance cameras at the Karaj facility. Whether the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 can be salvaged overall remains up in the air.
Before the end of this year, the IAEA will be able to replace the monitoring cameras that had mysteriously been removed from a centrifuge-parts workshop in the Iranian city of Karaj in February. Iran had framed this as an act of sabotage perpetrated by Israeli intelligence, while the IAEA was since unable to access the site. After recent negotiations ended without result, the facility has remained without international supervision for more than ten months.
As the UK-based Guardian reported, “Some Israeli defence and intelligence officials have alleged that Iran has used the period of shutting out the IAEA since June to smuggle portions of its 60%-enriched uranium to clandestine sites either to proceed covertly toward a nuclear weapon or to preserve the option to do so.”
The IAEA is the world’s largest nuclear watchdog, founded in 1957 and based in Vienna. As a branch of the United Nations, its assists member states all over the globe in developing nuclear energy for civilian purposes and upholding safety standards. At the same time, the agency has the diplomatic mission of verifying that this technology is not diverted for military ends.
After a nuclear deal was reached between Iran and the P5+1 (i.e. the US, Russia, China, France, the UK and Germany) in 2015, the IAEA was tasked with monitoring Iran’s compliance. In 2018, however, US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal and issued sanctions against Iran, to which the latter responded by further enriching uranium – in violation of the the deal’s boundaries. Ongoing negotiations in Vienna to revive the deal were unsuccessful until now.
Many open questions remain
The new partial agreement has some caveats and potential pitfalls: While the IAEA is allowed to reinstall the cameras, they will not have access to the footage until the nuclear deal is restored. According to Grossi, this compromise was struck in the assumption that a larger agreement would soon be found, allowing the agency to fully resume its monitoring operations in Iran. The Islamic Republic, however, has declared that it will only agree to such a revival once the economic sanctions against the country are lifted.
Grossi himself refrained from commenting on the thorny question of sanctions, emphasising the political neutrality of the IAEA. “I’m not a friend or a foe – I’m an inspector,” he asserted. Regarding the Karaj incident, however, he expressed doubts that the camera footage had simply vanished, as Iran claims. This issue remains unaddressed in the partial agreement, as Grossi emphasised the immediate urgency of restoring visual monitoring of the Iranian facilities.
Affirming the agency’s neutrality
It was also the first time that the IAEA presented a sample of the camera type used to supervise nuclear sites all over the world. Grossi emphasised that the cameras were both physically sealed and digitally encrypted, making any tampering impossible. This was seemingly aimed at countering recent insinuations by Iran that the IAEA cameras could have been hacked to spy on the facilities or even to cause the incident at Karaj. Upon questioning, Grossi qualified the claims as “absurd” and affirmed the agency’s neutrality.
While the partial agreement may not be the last word in this matter, it may be a step toward restoring diplomatic trust and, ultimately, reviving the nuclear deal. “I sincerely hope,” director Grossi said, “that we can continue our constructive discussions to also address and resolve all outstanding safeguards issues in Iran.”