Crisis over cameras threatens to shutter Iran nuclear talks - Financespiders

Crisis over cameras threatens to shutter Iran nuclear talks - Financespiders

Shortly after Iran signed its landmark nuclear deal with world powers, experts at the UN atomic watchdog travelled across the nation, installing tamper-proof surveillance cameras at the Islamic republic’s nuclear facilities.

The sophisticated devices were vital to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ability to ensure that Tehran was abiding by the 2015 accord. By January 2016, the IAEA said it was collecting and analyzing “hundreds of thousands of images captured daily” from the cameras.

But six years on, a row over these cameras threatens to scupper diplomatic efforts to save the nuclear accord and escalate tensions between the Islamic regime and the west.

Last week, Tehran informed the IAEA it was removing all 27 cameras the watchdog had installed to monitor the accord, a dramatic retaliation to a western-sponsored IAEA resolution criticizing Iran.

The move severely impairs the agency’s ability to observe the republic’s program as concerns mount that Tehran is edging closer to enriching uranium to levels that would enable it to produce a nuclear weapon, although Iran has said it does not want to produce a bomb.

“We are in a situation where for the first time . . . Iran has the ability to break out, have capacity to produce enough fissile material for a weapon, undetected,” said Ali Vaez, Iran analyst at Crisis Group, a think-tank. “We are in the beginning of a lose-lose cycle of escalation.”

Analysts believe Iran’s action is brinkmanship designed to increase its leverage at the negotiating table after more than a year of EU-brokered diplomatic efforts to revive the accord have stalled.

If talks collapse, the west is expected to impose more punitive measures against Iran, which would escalate tensions and risk a fresh bout of instability in the region.

The nuclear crisis has been simmering since former US president Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the deal in 2018 and imposed hundreds of sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign. A year after Trump ditched the deal, Iran aggressively ramped up its nuclear activity.

President Joe Biden promised to rejoin the deal and lift sanctions if Tehran returned to compliance, and an agreement to revive the accord was all but finalized weeks ago. But the process was thrown off course after Moscow — one of the signatories — insisted it wanted US guarantees that sanctions imposed on Russia because of its war with Ukraine would not affect its cooperation with Iran.

Both Iran and the US say they want to get the deal over the line. But they have failed to agree on outstanding issues, particularly Tehran’s demand that Washington lift a terrorist designation on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the most powerful arm of the state security apparatus.

As a result, the diplomatic efforts have been deadlocked for weeks. Iran’s nuclear chief, Mohammad Eslami, said on Thursday that Tehran had already begun removing cameras and started installing new centrifuges.

The IAEA still has about 40 cameras in Iran but they typically monitor nuclear material, such as uranium, while the 27 devices installed as part of the deal monitored activities such as the manufacture of centrifuge components, used to enrich uranium, and research and development.

A senior US official said Iran’s action was a serious blow, but not yet fatal for the deal “because at this point it’s reversible”. But the official warned that the longer the cameras stay off, the harder re-entering the deal would be.

“If they don’t [turn the cameras back on soon] then the steps they’re going to have to take to provide the IAEA with sufficient confidence to make up for the gap in knowledge will make it much more difficult to get back into the JCPOA [ deal],” the official said.

An Iranian regime insider insisted that Tehran was “going to stand firm on its demands”.

“Biden has so far proved very weak [ with American politicians opposed to the deal],” the insider said. “But maybe Iran’s move now can help Biden go to hawks in Washington and say ‘look, the JCPOA was better than nothing’ and that he has to compromise.”

Sanam Vakil, at the Chatham House think-tank, said no party was ready to kill the deal, adding that, given the war in Ukraine, the west lacked the “bandwidth” to cope with an Iran crisis.

“There’s no plan B that is seen to be effective and everybody else has too much going on, so the status quo is a crisis management strategy to keep the door to negotiations open,” said Vakil. “It’s very fragile, it feels like we are always on the precipice of a crisis and that Iran is going to push at any point.”

The challenge is how the US and Iran — both of which have to appease domestic constituencies hostile to a new deal — overcome their differences.

The regime insider said if Tehran conceded on the guards, it would be equivalent to “compromising on the legitimacy of the Islamic republic”. “The country is run by the guards,” he said.

Diplomats had tried to move discussions forward, Vaez said. Accepting the terrorist designation for the Revolutionary Guards “is a major concession [for Iran]” Vaez said, adding that they would expect a reciprocal concession. He added that the US “might be willing to give another 5 per cent, but not another 20 per cent”.

It is unclear what Iran has asked for, beyond the lifting of the terrorist designation, but Washington considers the requests unacceptable. Vaez warned that the “no deal, no crisis dynamic” that has been the status quo for the past several months could not be sustained.

If the talks collapse completely, European powers could join the US in stepping up punitive measures against Iran, analysts say.

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“If there’s no deal at some point in summer, Biden will consider an interim agreement,” Vaez said. Iran has however previously ruled out an interim agreement, whereby Tehran freezes its nuclear activity in return for some form of economic relief. Source: Financial Times...


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