Iran agreed Sunday to allow international inspectors to install new memory cards into surveillance cameras at its sensitive nuclear sites and to continue filming there, potentially averting a diplomatic showdown this week.
Tehran’s agreement to allow IAEA inspectors to continue maintenance work on cameras has been portrayed as an Iranian compromise. But it has only increased Israeli suspicions.
Bennett urged world powers not to “not to be misled by the Iranian smokescreen that will lead to further concessions” over the impasse. Israel, widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, has long accused Iran of seeking an atomic bomb. Tehran maintains its program is peaceful, though U.S. intelligence agencies and international inspectors believe the Islamic Republic pursued the bomb in an organized program up until 2003.
“There can be no giving in on the investigation of the sites and the most important message is that time must be allotted for this. They are delaying, but a distinct and clear deadline must be set that says ‘no more,’” Bennett stated.
The premier added: “The Iranian nuclear program is at the most advanced point ever. ... We will deal with this program.”
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Israel is suspected of launching multiple attacks targeting Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, as well as killing a scientist associated with Iran’s one-time military nuclear program last year.
The question troubling Israeli officials is whether this Iranian move indicates a desire to make progress toward a new nuclear deal with the West, or whether it merely confirms suspicions that Iran’s new leadership seeks to withdraw from the deal completely.
Government sources have warned recently about the possibility that Iran is deliberately trying to drag out the nuclear talks without ever reaching an agreement so that it can exploit this period – which could last for years – to make additional progress in its nuclear capabilities.
Even if a new agreement is ultimately signed, a senior government source said, it will only restrict Iran’s uranium enrichment. It won’t address other significant aspects of the nuclear program that are of concern to Israel, such as Iran’s production of missiles that could carry nuclear warheads.
In recent months, Israel has set two main goals in its struggle against Iran – keeping the Islamic Republic at a permanent and significant distance away from becoming a nuclear threshold state, and stopping Iran’s military activity in other Mideastern countries.
“Israel’s opposition to returning to the deal is clear,” a source familiar with the Israeli position said, adding that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett opposed this no less than did his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. “The benefits of signing it are small, and the price is liable to be significant.
“But we also aren’t ignoring the fact that if it is signed, the agreement might well serve us in the short run by somewhat delaying [Iran’s] uranium enrichment,” he added. “This is important even if the Iranians have the ability to quickly resume enriching uranium.”
The announcement about the cameras – made by Mohammad Eslami of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran after a meeting he held with the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, in Tehran – still leaves the watchdog in the same position it has faced since February, however.
Tehran holds all recordings at its sites as negotiations over the U.S. and Iran returning to the 2015 nuclear deal remain stalled in Vienna. Meanwhile, Iran is now enriching small amounts of uranium to its closest-ever levels to weapons-grade purity as its stockpile continues to grow.
“I am glad to say that today we were able to have a very constructive result, which has to do with the continuity of the operation of the agency’s equipment here,” Grossi said. It “is indispensable for us to provide the necessary guarantee and information to the IAEA and to the world that everything is in order.”
Eslami described the negotiations between Iran and the Vienna-based IAEA as “sheerly technical” without any room for politics. He said Grossi would return to Iran soon to talk with officials, without elaborating. Also left unsaid was whether Iran would hand over copies of the older recordings, which Tehran had threatened previously to destroy.
“The memory cards are sealed and kept in Iran according to the routine,” Eslami said. ”New memory cards will be installed in cameras. That is a routine and natural trend in the agency’s monitoring system.”
A joint statement released by the IAEA and Iran confirmed the understanding, saying only that “the way and the timing are agreed by the two sides.”
The announcement could buy time for Iran ahead of an IAEA board meeting this week in which Western powers had been arguing for Tehran to be censured over its lack of cooperation with international inspectors. Eslami said Iran would take part in that meeting and its negotiations with the IAEA would continue there.
The IAEA told member states in its confidential quarterly report last week that its verification and monitoring activities have been “seriously undermined” since February by Iran’s refusal to let inspectors access their monitoring equipment.
The IAEA said certain monitoring and surveillance equipment cannot be left for more than three months without being serviced. It was provided with access this month to four surveillance cameras installed at one site, but one of the cameras had been destroyed, and a second had been severely damaged, the agency said.
Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian ambassador to the IAEA, praised the agreement on Twitter, calling it “technical but very important.”
“It is no less important for Iran to rebuff groundless speculations against it,” Ulyanov wrote.
Iran and world powers agreed in 2015 to the nuclear deal, which saw Tehran drastically limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord, raising tensions across the wider Middle East and sparking a series of attacks and incidents.
President Joe Biden has said he’s willing to re-enter the accord, but so far, indirect talks have yet to see success. In the meantime, Iran elected Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line protégé of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as president. Raisi also has said he wants Iran to regain the benefits of the accord, though Tehran in general has struck a tougher pose since his victory.
From Riyadh, the top diplomats of Saudi Arabia and Austria jointly expressed concern over Iran’s nuclear advances, with Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg citing “Iran’s failure to allow access for nuclear inspections.”