By Genevieve Hackman
In the past month, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) came to two agreements with Iran that create space for diplomatic engagement with the United States.
While both Washington and Tehran are in difficult domestic positions, playing to domestic audiences that disapprove of “weak” policy on the other, the determined work of the UN’s nuclear watchdog has given both sides the opportunity to stave off a nuclear crisis and revive the Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
First, the IAEA and Iran negotiated a technical agreement to preempt a parliament-directed deadline to restrict IAEA inspector access to Iranian nuclear facilities absent sanctions relief from the United States. The technical agreement mitigates some loss of insight by maintaining the number of IAEA inspectors in Iran and reportedly providing the IAEA the means to reconstitute a full picture of Iran’s nuclear program at the end of the three-month agreement. However, the agreement did not prevent Iran from suspending implementation of something called the Additional Protocol, an agreement that expands IAEA monitoring capabilities.
The Additional Protocol allows for pre-approved, short notice access to Iranian nuclear facilities and required declarations about Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle research and development, limiting the gaps in knowledge about the progress of Iran’s nuclear program. Prolonged suspension of the Additional Protocol could create uncertainty regarding Iran’s ability to divert nuclear materials to a secret weapons program. And, any uncertainty could exacerbate existing tensions between the United States and Iran, as well as accelerate anxiety in Israel, which has long threatened a dangerous preemptive strike with the hopes of ending Iran’s program.
The head of the IAEA characterized the agreement as a “good result,” affirming that it would allow time for a diplomatic solution between the United States and Iran, although it is a fact that IAEA oversight and access has been diminished. The world is lucky the agreement survived its first two weeks, as the United States conducted air strikes in Syria on Iranian-backed group Kata’ib Hezbollah after they reportedly launched a February rocket attack on U.S. facilities in Iraq.
That technical agreement could also have been dismantled by a European-led initiative to admonish Iran in a routine IAEA meeting in Vienna in the first week of March. Fortunately, the IAEA struck a second deal to meet with Iran and discuss a number of historical issues with Iran’s nuclear program, including traces of pre-2003 uranium particles that the IAEA feels Iran has not adequately explained. The second deal assuaged the concerns of the United States and European members of the Iran nuclear deal, who were leading the push to censure Iran.
While the two IAEA agreements have delayed an immediate crisis, the United States and Iran appear to be at an impasse, with neither side willing to make concessions. Iran refuses to come to a meeting without preemptive sanctions relief, while U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has stated that, “unless and until Iran comes back into compliance, they won’t be getting that relief.” Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, sharply rebuked this statement, reemphasizing Iran’s view that the United States must move first because it was the first to breach the nuclear deal.
If not resolved, the present stalemate will undergo a diplomatic reset in June as the Iranian presidential elections mean the United States will soon face a new administration with which to contend. However, State Department Iran envoy Rob Malley has already said, “We don’t intend to base the pace of our discussions on the Iranian elections — the pace will be determined by how far we can get consistent with defending U.S. national security interests.”
These two IAEA agreements have created a window of opportunity for diplomacy by minimizing the effect of increasing breaches to the deal.
Nevertheless, it will be important to see if Iran and the United States are able to overcome the stalemate and capitalize on this short window of opportunity.