- The Washington Times
Sunday, February 21, 2021

An inconclusive visit by the U.N.’s top atomic watchdog to Iran over the weekend has highlighted another hurdle to the Biden administration’s hope to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal that President Trump repudiated — Tehran, like Washington, has some tricky domestic politics to navigate before it can cut a deal.

After talks Sunday with Rafael Grossi, head of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran’s lead atomic energy agency said it was still intending to comply with a recently passed Iranian law to stop all “voluntary measures” to cooperate with international inspectors, but simultaneously announced a three-month “temporary bilateral technical understanding” to allow the agency to continue at least some of its work.

Mr. Grossi, briefing reporters Sunday evening on his return to Vienna, said the meeting in Tehran will allow “necessary” inspection work to proceed, but acknowledged that the IAEA would not be able to conduct new surprise inspections and would have less access to certain locations. There are 18 nuclear facilities and nine other locations in Iran currently under watch by IAEA inspectors.

The temporary deal is “useful to bridge this gap that we are having. [It] salvages the situation now,” Mr. Grossi said. “But of course for a stable, sustainable situation there will have to be a political negotiation that is not up to me.”

The maneuvering comes despite a week of signals from Mr. Biden’s team that the U.S. is actively looking for a way to rejoin the 2015 deal and bring both Washington and Tehran back into compliance with its terms.

Mr. Biden “is prepared to go to the table to talk to the Iranians about how we get strict constraints back on their nuclear program,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “That offer still stands, because we believe diplomacy is the best way to do it.”

While Mr. Biden faces a difficult time selling a revived negotiation with Iran in Congress, Iranian leaders like President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif are facing political pressures of their own from a Parliament dominated by hard-liners. That pressure is only likely to increase as Iran faces critical national elections in June.

Mr. Grossi’s trip was made necessary because of a law passed by Iranian lawmakers in December mandating a significant reduction in cooperation with the IAEA on Feb. 23 if international sanctions were not lifted.

Mr. Zarif, an architect of the original 2015 deal with the Obama administration and five international powers, said the government was not issuing ”an ultimatum” to the IAEA but simply following the law.

“We are supposed to implement the laws of the country,” he told the English-language broadcaster Press TV in an interview over the weekend. “The parliament adopted legislation, whether we like it or not.”

Some 226 Iranian legislators issued a statement Sunday warning that the government must stick to the Feb. 23 deadline to scale back cooperation with U.N. inspectors, including turning off monitoring cameras at sensitive sites where nuclear research is being conducted.

Mr. Rouhani, a supporter of the 2015 deal and considered a relative moderate in Iran’s political spectrum, cannot run again after two four-year terms. Those favoring a tougher line against the U.S. are likely to make life difficult for Mr. Rouhani in the coming months, according to Saeid Jafari, a Middle East analyst based in Europe.

The hard-liners’ “ultimate goal is to prevent reaching new agreements with the West to revive the [Iran deal] while Rouhani is still in office,” Mr. Jafari wrote in an analysis for the Atlantic Council last month “ … Rouhani’s influential political rivals will do their best to deprive him of reviving the agreement before the end of his government.”

On a separate front, Mr. Sullivan said on “Face the Nation” that U.S. officials have begun reaching out to Iran to discuss American citizens being held in Iranian jails, calling the detentions a “complete and utter outrage.”

U.S. and allied officials accuse Tehran of routinely arresting foreign nationals as a bargaining chips for other issues. Many of those held are of Iranian descent and are charged with espionage.

“We have begun to communicate with the Iranians on this issue,” Mr. Sullivan said. “We will not accept a long-term proposition where they continue to hold Americans in an unjust and unlawful manner.”

But with the two sides sensitive to any sign of premature weakening, Iran and the U.S. could not even agree on the nature of the contacts.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh insisted in a television interview Sunday evening that “there are no direct talks between Iran and the U.S. in any field,” The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Khatibzadeh said all communications between Iran and the U.S. and gone through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which has represented American interests inside Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis.

 — This article was based in part on wire service reports.

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.